LONDON—The specter of ISIS is haunting Afghanistan. Or so it seemed when President Ashraf Ghani opened a one-day conference in Kabul on Wednesday that was supposed to provide a framework for peace after four long decades of war and occupation and uprisings and jihad.
Without mentioning the so-called Islamic State, Ghani said the “probability of peace” has been increased because “Afghans are revolted by the expansion in scale and scope of the unrestricted war playing out in our daily lives.”
Although at least one of the recent terrorist atrocities in Kabul that Ghani cited was the work of the Taliban, his focus appeared to be on the way ISIS operates.
Ghani specifically referenced the way some Muslim religious texts are used as “justifications for unrestricted war.” That’s the game of ISIS, which sees Afghanistan as part of historic, semi-mythical Khorasan, which includes parts of Pakistan and Iran as well.
Indeed, Afghanistan is an afterthought for ISIS, which, having lost virtually all the territory it once claimed as a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, now wants to conquer new lands far from the Tigris and Euphrates. Afghanistan would seem a vulnerable target. But the ISIS goal remains territorial control and growth–“endure and expand”–and in that global strategy Afghanistan is just a footnote.
The Taliban don’t view their world or their fight that way at all. In their own fashion they are strongly patriotic Afghans—and the Afghan president in Kabul tried to play on that.
“The Taliban show awareness of these contextual shifts,” Ghani said, his language ever that of a technocrat. And they “seem to be engaged in a debate on the implications of acts of violence for their future.”
Thus, Ghani suggested, “the Government of National Unity seeks a genuine and lasting peace with the reconcilable Taliban.”
In fact many of the Taliban are interested in a lasting peace as well––very interested––but their idea of what is just isn’t the same as Ghani’s. And there were no Taliban at the conference.
Even though, officially, the Taliban keep saying that there never will be peace until the presence of infidel occupying forces in Afghanistan is ended, many know that they will not be able to take Kabul, and feel they are trapped by their own absolutism. Quietly, privately, some acknowledge they should never have said “never.” But they find it all but impossible to pull back from a position that has been repeated so insistently and so often.
As a journalist covering the Afghan conflict for almost a quarter century, I have tried to reach out to all sides, including key figures, and it is clear to me that the official line of “no peace talks until the withdrawal of all U.S. forces” is not nearly so absolute as it sounds.
I remember as long ago as 2005, I heard from the late Sheer Bad Shah Fazeil, a senior Taliban officials and dean of the Kabul Medical University, that it the U.S. and then-President Hamid Karzai had half a brain they would offer the Taliban a deal, otherwise the only winner would be the torrents of blood.
“Accommodate the Taliban,” said Fazeil, “if not, there will be no options left.” His idea, which he shared with the United Nations, was to give the Taliban 15 provinces out of 34, to have Taliban governors and police chiefs, with the rest under the control of Afghan national forces.
Six months ago, I reached out to a key member of the Taliban Supreme Council, and, after many months of communication, managed to invite him to a good restaurant in a large city near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
He was in his sixties, with a gray beard. A former minister in the Taliban government and still a member of the Taliban military council, he arrived in an upscale Toyota, sipped his green tea and ate his Afghan lamb kebab with gusto.
“Taliban policy is very clear,” he said between bites. “Afghans are not tired of the struggle, despite heavy Taliban casualties, and we have no shortage of fighters.”
I argued that there is no shortage on the side of the Afghan government army either, with more and more young Afghans joining to fight against the Taliban. So, at the end of the day, this is about Afghans killing Afghans.
For the first time in a conversation that had gone on for an hour and a half, he seemed to be taken aback.
“We were a regime,” he said, referring to the Taliban government that ruled until the American military forced it out at the end of 2001, following the attacks on New York and Washington by Afghan-based Al Qaeda. “Our regime collapsed,” said the Taliban veteran, but he insisted this was because of the “bullying” by the United States, not because the people of Afghanistan turned against it.
“Now the ball is in the court of the United States to come forward and find a solution,” said the aging Taliban. “We were kicked out by the U.S. and we will deal only with the U.S. Then, after a few meetings, we could reach a deal with the Afghan regime.”
“So far neither the Afghan government nor the Americans are serious at all about peace talks,” the graybeard Taliban told me. “The U.S. and Afghan have to pitch realistic and non-bullying peace proposals. The Taliban are willing and ready to give a careful read to sensible proposals.”
I mentioned to Graybeard that I had heard from other senior Taliban a 50-50 sharing formula in the government might work.
“Let them put their proposal on the table,” he said. “At the moment Ghani and his regime have no plan or strategy except that the Taliban surrender, but there is no reason for the Taliban to give up.”
The peace proposal he put forward, although unofficial, is one that apparently has been discussed by Taliban leaders.
“We, the Taliban, do not want the war to turn into nothing but Afghan versus Afghan carnage,” he said. “Let’s stop killing Muslims by the hand of other Muslims.”
“Fifty-fifty shares in all ministries and major directorates, in 34 provinces, all over Afghanistan,” he said, “with entire freedom for the Taliban to convert gradually from a military force to an active political party, gradually releasing all Taliban prisoners.”
“The interim government would be set up for two to five years, with guarantees by the U.N., the U.S., NATO and Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors,” suggested the former Taliban minister.
“After the foundations of peace are laid, the U.S. and NATO forces must start leaving Afghanistan,” he said.
To get another perspective, I reached out to another key Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan. His proposals were similar but with more details.
“I think the Taliban should be accommodated in the Afghan system with dignity and self respect,” he said. “Fifty-fifty share in the central government and the provinces seems sensible, and a good offer for the Taliban, but how to proceed? We need more guarantors.”
The idea of shared power in all the provinces is seen as important, he said, to combat the idea that the plan would break up the country.
Taliban fighters who go back to their homes must also get paid jots for at least two years, and preferably five, to “let them be integrated into society,” the commander said.
“Those Taliban fighters who died over the last 17 years and have children must be compensated as well,” he said.
Once the Taliban are part of the regime there will be better security and transparency overall, and that will make it easier to hold credible elections.
“Like in Pakistan and other parts of the world, we could be a religious political party. The Taliban has support among Afghans and we could certainly win elections,” said the commander.
At the end of the day, will there be a peace settlement?
Probably not. At least, no time soon.
But that is not because both sides want war.
“If the enemy is inclined toward peace, make peace with them, and trust in Allah,” President Ghani said, citing the Quran as he opened the conference on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, ISIS waits, and watches, hoping to exploit the sense of frustration that has built up for so long, with so little hope.