Fighting secondary to posturing as Afghan peace effort gains pace
KABUL — Amid all of the attention paid to a major attack in the capital Tuesday and its potential effects on peace talks, a key fact is being overlooked: No combatants involved in the nearly 12-year-old Afghan war have called for a cease-fire. Coalition and Afghan forces continue to carry out operations and Taliban fighters continue to battle them; talking while fighting is part of the plan.
Potentially more damaging than the continuing combat are the defiant statements released Wednesday by the Taliban, just after Afghan President Hamid Karzai had vowed a commitment to peace. They claimed that the Taliban flag was still flying over the movement’s new office in Qatar’s capital of Doha and referred to Karzai as the “so-called head of Kabul” administration.
Strange as it may sound, a gunbattle in downtown Kabul may have less impact on potential peace talks than a flag waving over a building in Doha.
“The flag and the fighting ... are two separate issues when it comes to peace talks,” said Mohammad Hassan Haqyar, a writer, political analyst and former Taliban official.
But the NATO-led coalition seems to be confused, too. In a tweet Tuesday following an attack near the presidential palace in Kabul, when insurgents penetrated one of the most secure parts of the city, a coalition spokesman said the attack showed “divisions” within the Taliban ranks. Another spokesman explained that Taliban officials in Doha talking peace while militants carried out attacks represented a splintering of the group.
Meanwhile, coalition and Afghan forces continue daily combat operations while their governments try to tackle peace.
In a statement Wednesday, top coalition commander Gen. Joseph Dunford held out hope for peace, even while condemning the attack near the palace and a roadside bomb that killed nine civilians in Kandahar province. He referred to the Taliban as “the enemies of Afghanistan.”
“Despite these acts of violence, there is a path to peace and stability here, and our support for the Afghan people remains resolute and unwavering as they move toward a better future,” Dunford said.
The attack in Kabul did appear to be a “slap in the face” to potential talks, said Kate Clark, an analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network in Kabul. Still, with no cease-fire on the table, attacks aren’t likely to stop just because negotiations begin.
“With no cease-fire, everyone is talking and fighting, not just the Taliban,” she said.
While a cease-fire should be the aim of any peace process, it would be difficult to come to agreement on one before negotiations start, in part because of the erosion of central control within the Taliban movement, Clark said.
“Having a cease-fire as a precondition would be problematic in Afghanistan because you would have to have good command and control in order to enforce it, and the Taliban officials in Qatar would have to be able to guarantee and hold a cease-fire in the field,” she said. “Pre-2001, the Taliban had that kind of command and control, [but] that’s not the case now.”
More troubling than Tuesday’s attack is the fact that the Taliban have offered no concessions in their statements, calling into question their seriousness about peace, said Ahmad Majidyar, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent adviser to the U.S. Army.
“The Afghan government has given them unilateral concessions, releasing prisoners, offering the Taliban senior government positions,” he said. “The Taliban has given them nothing.”
Taliban representatives in Doha did not answer their phones Wednesday and Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid declined comment on potential peace talks.
While it may seem awkward for the warring sides to continue fighting while their officials discuss peace, this is common practice in Afghanistan, said Saleh Mohammad Saleh, a member of parliament from the insurgent hotbed of Kunar province.
“This is natural in Afghanistan, this is the custom and manner here, that if you start talking to solve a problem, whether it is a bigger problem or if it is a small problem in a village, like a land dispute, every side tries to gain an advantage so their voice is heard and they are given respect,” he said. “There is a chance for a cease-fire, but this is not something you should ask for now, because the negotiations have not started yet and that is the time when people can bargain over that.”
And trying to gain strength before negotiations is not unique to the Taliban, of course. When Gen. David Petraeus led coalition forces in Afghanistan from July 2010 to July 2011, he advocated fighting to weaken the Taliban before opening peace talks.
Still, if the Taliban are serious about peace, their recent statements have been less than diplomatic. After acting like a government-in-waiting rather than an insurgent group at the opening of their Doha office last week — raising their flag and displaying a plaque that referred to “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the country’s name when it was ruled by the Taliban — the group has doubled down on its tough rhetoric.
In a statement Wednesday, they said there could be no peace while “alien forces” are in the country, even though the chances are close to nil that their desired negotiating partner, the United States, will pull its troops from the country as a concession. Another statement claimed that the two key obstacles to the Afghan government agreeing to send a peace delegation to Doha — the flag and Islamic Emirate sign — were still up at the office.
A White House statement said Karzai and President Barack Obama spoke Tuesday about their commitment to peace talks and “reiterated their support for an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the (Afghan) High Peace Council and authorized representatives of the Taliban.”
Some in Afghanistan see the maneuvering as childish posturing and urge everyone to simply get on with peace talks.
Saleh said everyone is finding ways to avoid peace talks and that a flag and placard should not stand in the way of stemming the bloodshed that has engulfed Afghanistan for more than a decade.
“Everyone knows the cow is black and milk is white, so why do you care about their sign or flag?” he said.