Unceasing Fire

Last week saw Eid al-Adha, and ought to have brought the beginning of a ceasefire between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, which was announced by President Ashraf Ghani the Sunday before.

That attempted ceasefire, which follows a successful cessation of hostilities at Eid al-Fitr this year, failed to take place due to the active decision of one of the conflict’s participants. While both sides speak confidently about their willingness to talk, this time, only the Afghan government was prepared to put down its arms.

The Taliban, by contrast, reacted to the proposed ceasefire by taking hundreds prisoner in Kunduz. Afghan forces swiftly mounted a largely successful operation to rescue the hostages. This is a positive development; almost two hundred of those captured were able to celebrate Eid at liberty.

But merely reacting rapidly to acts of aggression is the half of it. One cannot induce an enemy to take a ceasefire seriously simply by reacting, with limited force, to its violent intransigence.

In any case, the Taliban rejection was clear. And this is not an isolated episode.

For all its rhetoric, the Taliban does not take any talk of peace seriously. It killed 200 Afghan security forces in attacks across the country at the beginning of this month alone.

These attacks are one thing – and could potentially be written off as a matter of process, a consequence of war with no conclusion in sight. In the three weeks following the previous ceasefire, even though it had held for its short duration, the Taliban killed as many as 150 members of the Afghan security forces, according to estimates compiled by the Long War Journal.

But beyond the tabulation of casualty counts, more is happening. The Taliban’s effective taking over of Ghazni city is of a different intent and to a different scale. It represents the solidifying of the insurgency’s long-standing control of parts of the city, and a conscious effort to repeat previous successes in capturing other major settlements.

It gives a signal and serves as a statement of intent: a demonstration that the insurgency is unvanquished, and unlikely to go anywhere.

This alone ought to diminish the possibility of peace talks, which are ongoing.

That it will not derail them speaks volumes. But this does not attest to anything as laudable as the readiness and the Afghan government and its allies to work towards peace; rather, it suggests that those parties will pursue negotiation even when their negotiating partner appears to have no appetite for the peace which is intended to result.

Indications of the Taliban’s continued violent posture are in sight all around. The Taliban’s announcement last week that it would no longer protect Red Cross personnel in Afghanistan says rather a lot about what little distance it is willing to travel to demonstrate goodwill.

The thought that such declarations are mere threats, intended to pressure the Afghan government into adopting a more favourable posture, is of little consolation. After all, negotiating with terrorists is hardly accepted policy to begin with, let alone after they go out of their way to demonstrate their less than peaceable intentions.

When this is the result of a posture of negotiation, it is reasonable to subject that posture to renewed assessment. Talking to the Taliban has failed to stop the fighting. Instead, it has served as a background event amid a continuing and escalating campaign of violence.

This is not the basis upon which the parties can agree even a brief and ceremonial ceasefire. How can it possibly serve as a foundation for long-lasting peace and reconciliation?

Negotiating with the Taliban, it seems, does not disincentivise the above behaviour.

Indeed, negotiation, of the sort we have seen up to now, is likely to facilitate more intransigence. Taliban-created chaos pressures the Kabul government and its international backers, and can thus serve as a negotiating tactic.

This incentivises the Taliban’s violence and threats as an adjunct to its tactics pursued at the negotiating table.

But more than this, the very fact negotiations are being held at all – and with the alacrity which likely results from desperation – suggests to the Taliban that it, and thus its present activities, are winning.

Perhaps, with a little more calculated violence, by either instituting ceasefires with great fanfare or dashing them with vigour, the Taliban believes can pursue victory in whole, rather than in part.

The Afghan government is weak and its policies unpopular. The Afghan people are war-weary. So too are the domestic populations of those nations fighting to keep the Taliban out of power.

Some Americans, with tremendous arrogance, call Afghanistan a ‘forever war’, despite the fact that America’s Afghan war stands as nothing – in duration or intensity – compared to the war endured by Afghans themselves.

The Taliban no doubt believes its capacity for endurance is greater than that of a country whose citizens think like this. Taliban endurance could reasonably be expected to include rounds of negotiation leavened with acts of violence and territorial expansion, just to remind participants of its capabilities.

That the United States seems to have doubts about its own willingness to continue – to the extent that its leadership has resurrected a ludicrous plan devised by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to privatise the Afghan war – plays into Taliban hands. But so too does negotiating with the Taliban when it continues to perpetrate acts of violence on this scale, and to reject ceasefires as a negotiating tactic.

Only when the Taliban commitment to violence appears lessened can negotiations prove fruitful. Otherwise, all attempts to find true resolution to this conflict appear doomed to sideshow status, amid the military manoeuvres one simply knows will be undertaken concurrently.

A quiet life is not worth countenancing such things. And negotiating with the Taliban appears unlikely to guarantee peace or quiet.

Until this is no longer the case, allies of the Afghan government should be prepared to stand by its side, beginning, if necessary, to expand any solipsistic definitions of ‘forever’ which lie in the way of the interests of the Afghan people.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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