Peace Talks in Doha: A Reality Check

Last week, White House officials announced that the U.S. and the Taliban would start peace talks in the reopened Doha office of the Taliban. The announcement made headlines around the world, nurturing hopes that the protracted conflict in Afghanistan may finally move a bit closer to a peaceful solution.

In the meantime, the war in Afghanistan is going on. After the harsh Afghan winter, the fighting season is in full swing, and the Taliban are as determined and capable as ever of mounting serious pressure on the Afghan military forces. They also conducted three spectacular attacks in Kabul in the last three weeks, attacking the military airport, the Supreme Court, and Kabul’s highly secured ‘green zone’ in which the CIA headquarters and the Presidential palace are located.

It does not make sense for the Taliban to enter into serious peace negotiations before it becomes clear how much military and political power Kabul will be able to retain after 2014.

Meanwhile, at the Doha office, the Taliban hoisted their flag and unveiled a sign referring to the Doha office as the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. This is the how the Taliban referred to Afghanistan while in power. Predictably, and legitimately, this was perceived by the government of Afghanistan as a direct challenge and provocation, adding to its frustration with the Doha ‘peace process’.

The U.S. had not bothered to include the Afghan government in the Doha process. In the eyes of the Afghan government, the U.S. had thus accepted the Taliban’s long-standing refusal to negotiate with the current government of Afghanistan, which the Taliban see as a puppet regime of an occupying force. As an immediate reaction, President Karzai suspended talks with the U.S. about bilateral security arrangements after 2014. Indeed, not a good start for peace talks.

A reality check reveals a few unpleasant facts about these talks. First, it is predominantly the U.S. who need a deal, not the Taliban. The Americans are desperate to pack up and leave, since ending the war in Afghanistan is a domestic imperative. It was promised by President Obama, and is also an economic necessity given the state of the U.S. economy. The remaining objectives of U.S. policy in the region are now to obtain some guarantees that Afghanistan will not become a safe-haven for terrorists, and keeping a military presence in Afghanistan in order to keep up pressure on Iran and possibly China. All the rest—peace-building, state-building, good governance, poverty reduction or women’s rights—are ‘nice to haves’, but not essential. In order to achieve their remaining objectives at the least possible cost, the U.S. is pushing for a deal with the Taliban.

Second, the Taliban can and will outwait the U.S. Currently no one knows how many troops the U.S. will actually leave in the country, but U.S. media have repeatedly reported figures between 9,000-12,000 troops. That would be enough for training the Afghan army and for keeping the Taliban out of Kabul. However, it would certainly not be enough to credibly deter the Taliban from taking over major parts of rural Afghanistan.

The Taliban will wait and see who will be the new president of Afghanistan after the elections scheduled for spring 2014. They will closely watch whether the new leader is able to build a stable coalition among Afghanistan’s power brokers or whether the political elite is internally divided—which would it make easier for the Taliban to cut separate deals with some of the power brokers.

It does not make sense for the Taliban to enter into serious peace negotiations before it becomes clear how much military and political power Kabul will be able to retain after 2014. Most observers expect that it will be less than it is today, at least for the next few years. Time is on the side of the Taliban. In the meantime, opening the Doha office does not hurt. It is a diplomatic boost for them, and having channels of communication may come in handy at a later stage.

Sidelining president Karzai was not a smart move by the U.S. for two reasons. One, it is simply not polite to sideline an elected president of a sovereign nation for peace talks that concern primarily said sovereign nation. Diplomatic rudeness and arrogance erodes soft power, and the U.S. has precious little soft power left, especially in this part of the world.

Secondly, the U.S. bet that Karzai is a lame duck might prove to be very wrong. It is true that Karzai’s second and last term ends in spring 2014, but many political observers in Afghanistan believe that the Karzai camp will be able to cling to power. Various scenarios exist; for example, Karzai might be ‘asked’ to stay in power by his Afghans.

This scenario is part of the political culture of the region. The presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan all extend their presidency indefinitely at the ‘request’ of their people. In another scenario, Karzai might become Prime Minister, relegating the presidency to a largely representative office. Putin and Medvedev in Russia have demonstrated how this is done. Most likely, the Karzai camp will find a suitable candidate that can run and win on their behalf. Either way, the Karzai camp is likely to retain political power beyond 2014, and they will not forget how the U.S. humiliated them by sidelining them in Doha.

In sum, the U.S. effort in Doha is an attempt at micro-managing a very complex and delicate process with a sledgehammer. It is not likely to bring peace in Afghanistan any closer. This is indeed not good news for Afghans, who have suffered terribly during three decades of wars.

A recent article by Spiegel Online reports that out of 100 Afghan diplomats whose term abroad ended, only five returned to Afghanistan. The others chose to stay abroad and wait to see what happens in 2014. The recent news from Doha is unlikely to change this mindset. And who can blame them?

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