Rapprochement in Afghanistan? Ashraf Ghani's olive branch extended to Taliban is an opportunity for the country


Peace is an elusive commodity in war-torn Afghanistan. Generations of Afghans have grown up without ever having the luxury of knowing what it actually feels like to be living in a peaceful country. Therefore, when the president of the republic speaks of the need for reconciliation and recognition of the enemy as an equal, it is time for everyone to wake up and take notice.

This week, the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani “offered to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group” in the country. And, at the same time, Ghani proposed a ceasefire and prisoner release with its dreaded adversary – the Taliban. This olive branch, extended at the beginning of a Western-backed conference on sustainable governance, aims at creating the requisite platform for peace talks with the Taliban. There are many hard questions surrounding this rapprochement that need answering. First, how sincere is the Ghani government and its western-backers on this peace move? Second, are the Taliban going to accept the olive branch extended to them?

File image of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

File image of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

The peace arithmetic

Let us first focus on the question of sincerity of the current regime on the proposed peace talks. There are several positives surrounding this initiative. First, by recognising the Taliban as a legitimate political force, as well as a political group, Ghani’s regime has succeeded in making it (the Taliban) mainstream. Unrecognised until now, the Taliban could thrive in its pariah status. Its non-legal position allowed it to operate outside law. If it becomes mainstream, the Taliban shall be forced to recognise the legitimacy of the government in Kabul and remits of the Afghan law (at least in theory). Secondly, Ghani has indicated that the peace talks can take place with the Taliban “with no preconditions”. This stance removes any potential roadblocks in the peace process.

Many peace initiatives do not take off because of inbuilt preconditions. In this specific case, the absence of any such clause makes the proposition attractive to both the government of Ghani and to the rebel Taliban. It is a win-win situation for both. If there is something positive that could be achieved, it is good for either of the parties. If not, there is no immediate damage.

On the third aspect surrounding this change of stance known as part of the “Kabul Process”, the initiative has the support of Afghan government’s Western allies and donors. Until very recently, the West was very reluctant to engage with the Taliban in a non-military context (at least openly). When Ghani talks of the goal “which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks," he is reiterating the sentiment of his Western backers and the funders.

Yet, there remains an obvious question. What do the Taliban make of all this?

Would the Taliban bite?

So far, there has been no immediate response from the Taliban to this offer. Would the group find the initiative to its advantage? Is it seeking ways to become a part of the legitimate political process? Does it really seek peace? The Taliban and its elusive leadership can only correctly answer these questions. Meanwhile, all we can do is weigh the words of Ghani and the ground realities in Afghanistan.

Given that the peace initiative comes from the government side, the Taliban might construe it as symptom of the former’s weakness. Of late, the group has had many high-profile attacks against the government interests and civilian targets. Such daring missions has clearly made the government nervous. A recent study produced by the BBC suggested that the group “now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan”. Under the circumstance, the Taliban really has no compulsion to “grab the hand of friendship” that the regime in Kabul is extending towards it. Similarly, if it wants to be mean it can take up the issue of “prisoner swap” with the government and soon withdraw from any binding peace plan once it has received its jailed comrades.

The takeaway from this initiative

There is no doubting the fact that the current regime in Afghanistan appreciates the value of politics of inclusion. Finally, we have a leadership that recognises that the nation’s strongest defence against the perpetual turmoil is inclusive governance. If anything, the panacea to Afghanistan’s current ills, reside in embracing such daring pluralism. The policy of political pluralism can alone allow Afghans to survive, prosper, and thrive. Yet, as the old saying goes:  it takes two to tango. Peace shall forever elude Afghans if the Taliban does not take up the offer.

Amalendu Misra is Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK and the author of Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence, Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 13:17 PM

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