On Talks with the Taliban

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US President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to withdraw about half of the estimated 14000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan. As the US plans its withdrawal, the countries in Afghanistan’s neighboring region are moving with a sense of urgency in the face of altering regional dynamics. Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has created new security concerns. Subsequently, the countries in surrounding Afghanistan are flocking to enter talks with the Taliban, and are working to change their regional and foreign policies in a way that they are able to secure their interests in a future settlement.

All neighbors seem to be gearing up in anticipation of the situation in the Afghan region post-US withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban show no signs of altering position on their long-held stance; the Taliban as a group challenge the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The Taliban have voiced their disapproval of the influence and control they believe the United States exercises over the state. The group is thus adamant as ever to not engage with the Afghan government, and in doing so they are intent on working to delegitimize the power of those in control of Kabul. While talks for a peaceful solution continue with the stakeholders in the region, the Taliban have also continued terror attacks across the country. This month again, several Taliban attacks were noted in the western and northern regions of Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of a number of security officials. This is concerning for not only the government in Kabul, but also for all stakeholders in regional security.

The Afghan Taliban’s leadership seems to be focused on strengthening their own legitimacy while weakening that of the government in Kabul. In order to do this the group is doing two things: one, engaging with international players while refusing to engage with the leadership in Kabul. Two, picking which state it wants to engage with and engaging with state level government officials, thereby raising the status of their group to an equally ‘official’ level.

When the Taliban hold talks with countries like Pakistan, the United States, Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it positions and projects the group as the only actor with agency to bring back stability to Afghanistan. India is the only regional country presently to have consistently rejected the idea of establishing contact with the Taliban. There are signs however that India may open informal diplomatic channels if the ongoing talks show any positive signs.

In any case, it is apparent now that the group is confident any efforts to restore peace and stability to Afghanistan would not work unless the Afghan Taliban are on board with their complete support for the peace process. The specifics of such an arrangement, with regards to what it is exactly that the group hopes to achieve is still the leading cause for curiosity. Being part of an official power structure would mean the Taliban would have to give up on its militancy campaign. Moreover, even though diplomatic engagement between the Taliban and neighboring countries is ongoing, it is not entirely in the best interest of neighboring countries that a Taliban-led government be established in Afghanistan. Pakistan for instance has a lot to consider in this respect. The Taliban’s brief rule in Kabul back in the mid-90s led to a wave of extremism destabilizing Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. Presently Pakistan and China’s economic cooperation over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is also dependent on regional stability. Regardless, as all players weigh their options in moving the Afghan peace process forward the only thing that can be said with certainty is perhaps that the Afghan Taliban will continue to play a key role in any settlement.

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