The Afghan Taliban apparently refused to join the latest round of four national dialogue scheduled this month as part of quadrilateral forum. “We unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorised anyone to participate in this meeting,” said a statement by the Taliban, who officially call themselves ‘Islamic Emirate’— the name they used during the period they ruled Afghanistan.
Following the statement, many interpreted the latest announcement as inflexibility of the Taliban for talks and dashing of all hopes for reconciliation. However, the Taliban’s statement is part of their public posturing to send a message to different constituencies. The Taliban like any movement have both a public narrative to build on and also it has drawing room leverages and vulnerabilities to live with while negotiating with out side powers/forces.
To start with, the Taliban’s statement came in the aftermath of the admission by Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Advisor Sartaj Aziz that the Taliban leadership is living in Pakistan. Answering a question about the extent to which Pakistan could encourage or pressure the Taliban to negotiate peace with Kabul, Sartaj Aziz said: “We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurise them to say, ‘come to the table’.” This admission embarrassed the Taliban as if they are under enough influence of Pakistan to be pushed to talk. They may have wished Pakistan avoided this public admission. Their latest statement is perhaps with this aim in mind to give an impression that they are free agent and will negotiate on their on terms and choice of timing. In other words they can strike a divergent path to Pakistan.
The second message is for their foot soldiers and field commanders who are on the battle field and witnessing their battle victories. They would question their own leadership entering into any talks from position of weakness when they feel to have an upper hand on the battlefield given recent victories in the country’s North and South and they would like to see the politician Taliban to maintain that power throughout and not concede quickly under pressure from “Quad”.
The third reason for the Taliban talking tough is to assure the Taliban prisoners that their release is the immediate priority so has been made part of pre-negotiation stage. At the moment thousands of their foot soldiers are in detention facilities of Afghan government. Being a veteran force of the fight-fight and talk-talk strategy, the Taliban believe they can draw some tactical concessions while the talks drag on and without crossing the threshold and hence without inviting the anger of other countries like China and Pakistan in particular.
The fourth reason is the Taliban want to buy time when the weather is right for the much-talked about Sprig operation. Since they have no incentive to substantively be part of the possible peace agreement at this stage when they are winning on the battlefield, the Taliban will love to continue these battle field victories through out the spring operation in 2016. They understand the anxiety of the Afghan government to see some sort of ceasefire in place by next spring.
The fifth reason being is the Taliban’s political leadership is still confused of any political map. Since it is a closed organisation, it needs to find out how to put in place their wish list and how best to turn battlefield victories into successful negotiating strategy. They have spearheaded insurgency over the last decade and did not indulge in much politicking. It requires astute diplomatic know how to get down to negotiating table and thrash out sub details of any winning strategy. They must be on the look out for ideas from their sympathisers and patrons to inform their negotiating strategy hence needing more time.
Despite all their tough talk on dialogue, they understand constraints as well: they must have read the latest commitment Pakistan gave to the United States to implement National Action Plan. It was the first time that the Pakistan government at the recently concluded round of Strategic Dialogue with the US accepted not to allow the Taliban to use its soil any further.
“Pakistan reaffirmed its commitment to taking action, in line with the country’s National Action Plan, to ensure that the Taliban are unable to operate from Pakistani soil,” the joint statement said.
This is also what Afghanistan has long been demanding that Pakistan uses oercion against the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan till recently was not prepared to militarily coerce Afghan Taliban.
As Pakistan expects, given the Taliban’s victories, they (the Taliban) will not be foolish to forfeit this advantage in the beginning so expecting some sort of manoeuvring by the Taliban is understandable. However, the Taliban will likely come back to the negotiating table as they will not be able for long to mix public posturing with their vulnerabilities known to them in their drawing room conversations.
Jan Achakzai is a commentator and expert on militancy.