Why the Istanbul Summit May be Afghanistan’s Last Chance

Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Former Senior Member, British FOreign and Commonwealth Office

Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London. Much of his career was spent in Asia including a posting to Pakistan in the mid 1990s. Tim has focused for many years on South Asia and North East Asia as well as the issues of terrorism, organised crime, insurgency and conflict resolution. He was awarded the CMG in 2007.  An earlier version of this article was published by Gateway House, the Indian Council on Global Relations.

 The Taliban should have been reintegrated into Afghan society several years ago. It is now probably too late to persuade them to accept anything less than a dominant role in Kabul. However Turkey, Pakistan and the United States may have one last chance to pressure the antagonists into a negotiated settlement.

The Istanbul Summit hangs in the balance. It has been postponed until after the month of Ramadan which ends on or about 12th May. This will allow more time to persuade the Taliban to attend. Their presence is essential because the summit probably represents the final chance to reach an Afghan settlement before NATO forces leave before 11th September.

There has been some criticism by academics in recent years that the Taliban were not invited to the famous Bonn conference in December 2001 but that is taking hindsight to extreme lengths. There is no way that the United States would have accepted their presence in Bonn only a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks which the Taliban (as Al Qa’ida’s hosts in Afghanistan) should have prevented.

However the Taliban ought to have been reconciled with the Kabul government sometime between late 2001 and the summer of 2006 when the ISAF ‘phase 3’ plan was implemented in southern Afghanistan with NATO countries opening ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ in Kandahar province (Canadians), Helmand (British), Uruzgan (Dutch) and Zabul (Americans). This was the disastrous moment when a resurgent Taliban found its provinces being apparently ‘taken over’ by Western troops and aid workers. This was also when NATO, with its mission to degrade AQ, suddenly found itself fighting the wrong enemy. For all their medievalist brutality the Taliban have never been international jihadists; they are radicalised Afghan tribesmen who have a rightful place in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

So the main objective of the Istanbul summit should be to decide how to reintegrate the Taliban into Afghan civil society. However the Taliban want more than this; they wish to return to power in Kabul, a role for which they are demonstrably not yet ready. Instead the aim must be somehow to integrate them into government whilst keeping them out of Kabul until there is sufficient confidence that they will not try to seize power and brutalise the population as they did between 1996 and 2001. One option would be to let them govern a province in the south. Helmand would be the ideal option given the Taliban’s success in stifling the opium industry there in the late 1990s. However they are likely to settle for nothing less than Kandahar, which they regard as their capital.

Even as part of a glide-path towards a share of government in (say) five years the Taliban would never accept such a proposal. This is where Turkey and Pakistan have such a crucial role to play. Between them, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Pakistan’s General Bajwa have the credibility (Erdogan) and the power (Bajwa) to oblige the Taliban to enter into this sort of negotiation. This is somewhat reminiscent of how Samora Machel of Mozambique insisted that a reluctant Robert Mugabe and his ZANLA guerrillas (which operated from Mozambican territory) should enter into the Lancaster House negotiations on the future of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Mugabe was not pleased but he had little alternative. In Zimbabwe the guerrilla forces were eventually integrated with the former Rhodesian army, which would be an ideal outcome in Afghanistan.

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Bajwa would be reluctant to expend much political capital on applying such pressure to the Taliban and that is where the United States will have a key role to play. Pakistan is reluctant to become entirely dependent on China and some in the military leadership recognise that an unfettered Taliban in power in Kabul would be impossible to control. As Pashtuns they might also make common cause with discontented Pashtuns inside Pakistan. A carefully crafted package of political and economic measures by the US could bring Pakistan round at a time when it is already beginning to show some hesitant diplomatic flexibility with India under the mediation of the UAE.

All the other attendees at Istanbul wish to see a peaceful Afghanistan and might be expected to support such a plan. China has some commercial interests in the country but, above all, wishes to ensure that Uighur militants cannot use it for training and refuge. Russia and the Central Asian Republics worry about the narcotics trade and Taliban contacts with their own Islamists. Iran wants to ensure that the Hazara Shia minority is protected from persecution. India will be the least willing to see the Taliban play any role in the future of Afghanistan but will realise that President Ghani’s government might not survive long unless the Taliban are bound into an agreement. Hitherto few of these countries have had any wish to assist the United States out of its predicament but post-US withdrawal they are facing a new and more dangerous situation.

It would take some masterly diplomacy to pull off a last-gasp settlement in Afghanistan and it would need China, Russia and Iran to commit to it at a time when relations with the United States are seriously strained. Furthermore it would need some countries to act as guardians of the deal, perhaps under United Nations auspices, to ensure that neither the Taliban nor the Kabul government renege on the terms. Ideally there would be a force of peacekeepers from predominantly Muslim countries. That too would be no small task to agree and assemble.

The suggestion that the US might bring forward its departure to July looks like one measure to entice the Taliban to attend. A second is the hasty search for a regional partner willing to host a US Counter-Terrorist capability for continued operations inside Afghanistan. Armed drones, ground-attack aircraft and Special Forces could still be deployed against Al Qa’ida and Islamic State terrorists whilst also stiffening Afghan government defences against the Taliban.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to all five Central Asian Republics (known as the C5) and to India. Without tacit Russian approval the C5 may be reluctant. For Pakistan a US base would be domestically sensitive. India is too distant to provide a sufficiently constant threat to the Taliban. Air power launched from an aircraft-carrier in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf would be a less-than-ideal fall-back option.

So the odds are against success and some key countries (notably India, Pakistan and Turkey) are beset by a resurgence of Covid. It will require a considerable effort by the United States and its allies to salvage success from the Afghan imbroglio.

Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent those of any institution.

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