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A Position of Strength.

Byline: Dr. Raza Khan

As the United States has pulled out most of its security forces personnel from Afghanistan without fully restoring stability and order to the country, it has started taking a new look at the political and security dynamics there in the post withdrawal period. The White House spokesman did not label the Afghan Taliban as terrorists' and instead called the movement an armed insurgency'. This is of extreme significance.

According to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, there is a distinction between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is a terrorist organization and Afghan Taliban, which is an armed insurgency. In reply to a question regarding Jordanian plans to swap ISIS prisoners with hostages held by the ISIS, Shultz said, The Taliban is an armed insurgency, ISIL is a terrorist group. We don't make concessions to terrorist groups."

However, when reminded by a reporter of a similar prisoner swap by Washington with Afghanistan's Taliban last year, releasing several Guantanamo Bay prisoners in exchange for the freedom of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban as a prisoner since 2009, Shultz said the situation was different because Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is a terrorist group while in the administration's thinking" the Taliban were not.

The statement clarified US policy regarding the Afghan Taliban. However, the thinking community in the US and in several of her allied countries has expressed surprise over this stand by Washington. The fact of the matter is that the new policy statement about the Taliban reflected the realism prevailing in the American policy circles. The Afghan Taliban insurgency could not be decisively defeated by the US led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance and even after 13 years of continuous fighting, it is quite strong in many areas of Afghanistan.

As the international coalition forces had dislodged the Afghan Taliban regime way back in 2001, soon after the September 9/11 attacks on the US mainland owned by the Taliban hosted Al Qaeda, the former has been waging an armed insurgency. The Taliban have dubbed this struggle a national liberation movement' against foreign occupation.' One may not be convinced of the Afghan Taliban's stand but there is a little substance in their argument. It is noteworthy that the Afghan Taliban, since their ouster from power, have kept a cautious distance from Al Qaeda. They did not react strongly to the killing of the Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden by US special operation forces.

Moreover, since 2001 the Afghan Taliban have been arguing that they disapprove of use of Afghan soil by alien foreign fighters for terrorism and militancy in a third country. This indirectly disavowes the Al Qaeda agenda of waging a stateless Jihad'. Moreover, realizing the ghastly mistakes committed during their rule, like banishing girls from getting education, several Taliban leaders have promised not to repeat such acts when they return to power. Furthermore the Taliban got involved in interlocutions with the US for bringing an end to the insurgency in Afghanistan. Although the process known as the Doha debate has fallen through but it has shown the Taliban's readiness to engage in talks with groups like the Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Assessing all these aspects and dynamics of the Afghan Taliban movement and its insurgency, by not labeling the group as a terrorist organization, Washington wants to dangle a carrot in front of the Taliban. The US must have realized that political stability in Afghanistan would be a pipedream without the Taliban either joining the political system or at least acquiescing to its legitimacy. This is despite of the fact that the Afghan government has had a standing strength of its security forces of more than 300,000 personnel. It remains to be seen whether the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) could hold their own against the Taliban insurgency.

Since the 2001, the Afghan Taliban insurgency has been kept at bay from overthrowing the Afghan government in Kabul by the US led international forces, making use of their high tech gadgetry and weapons. On their part, the Afghan Taliban must be assessing the situation very carefully. After getting an indirect offer from the US to become part of the political system, they must be doing their cost benefit analysis. It is also important that the Afghan Taliban cannot go on waging the insurgency indefinitely and there must be an end to it. As the foremost goal of the Taliban has been the pulling out of foreign forces from Afghanistan, which has to a greater extent been fulfilled, they may be ready to join the political system, which they have always dubbed as Western oriented. But the Taliban would like to join the system from a position of strength.

Therefore, they would go for a last all out effort against the ANSF to capture as much territory as possible to improve their bargaining position for any future talks regarding power sharing with the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

It is important to note that the statement from the White House regarding its policy on the Afghan Taliban came at a time when the US reportedly engaged with China and Afghanistan to carry forward the Afghan peace process. It is due to this initiative that the Taliban acknowledged sending its delegation to China for talks on unspecified issues. This is a significant development because China previously did not play any worthwhile role in the Afghan peace process. However, after the withdrawal of the Americans and their allies from Afghanistan late last year China seemingly agreed to play its part in bringing stability to Afghanistan. The previous reluctance of Beijing regarding its involvement in Afghanistan was due to its apprehensions about the US, a strategic competitor in the region. From these initiatives, Washington can safely assume that

President Obama's Administration would like the Taliban to become part of the Afghan political system and desirably to have some share in power in Kabul and in the provinces in the southeast of Afghanistan, considered strongholds of the Taliban.

The Afghan Taliban joining the country's political system and power centres serves the key interests of Washington in Afghanistan. This includes having sustainable stability in the post US NATO forces withdrawal period and preventing the Al Qaeda to make a comeback. Also the ISIS need to have a foothold there by taking advantage of the political crisis in Afghanistan as the Al Qaeda did in the late 1990s. From here the group launched attacks on the US mainland. The Taliban, by joining the political system have some share in power in Kabul and the provinces. They would be instrumental in giving the much needed stability to Afghanistan. Moreover, after paying the very heavy cost of hosting the Al Qaeda, the Taliban are most likely to eschew physical support to the Al Qaeda. As fighting interminably would also not be possible for the Afghan Taliban, they must definitely be pondering over the unfolding atmospherics in Afghanistan and concealed offers of having a share in power.

Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani has already offered the Afghan Taliban to join the political process. Keeping all these developments and dynamics in view, the Afghan Taliban may join the country's political system at some point in future. However, they would like to negotiate for this from a position of strength.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Mar 31, 2015
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