Afghanistan’s government led by Ashraf Ghani has tried to instigate peace talks with the Taliban – those talks have become interesting enough for the mainstream media to take note, and for a number of “ceasefire days” to be given during Eid al-Fitr. However, the reality of the situation on the ground is far from rosy: the Afghan Taliban are divided, and have been for some time, over the idea of peace talks, whilst Afghanistan’s regional partners have not substantially changed their doctrine.
The Afghan Taliban have been divided for some time over their participation or not in peace talks
Ever since the killing of Mullah Mansour in May 2016 – allegedly by a US drone with the blessing of the ISI during his return journey from Iran into Pakistan – the Afghan Taliban, already somewhat fragmented into groups dominated by charismatic and/or ruthless local sheikhs, have been difficult to read. Indeed Hibatullah Akhundzada is rumoured to be in favour of negotiating a peace deal, whereas Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the infamous Haqqani clan responsible for some of the most vicious attacks on Afghan and Pakistani soil, is regarded as being rather more hawkish. With time, the natural fear is that the Taliban faction more inclined to negotiate will become swamped by the hardline groups. This in turn would risk Taliban infighting which in turn would blow to smithereens any attempt to negotiate a lasting peace with the Afghan Taliban as a whole. Of course, the hardline Taliban faction might also be tempted to cut ties with their former Taliban colleagues and form a loose alliance with the Islamic State in Khurasan – in any case, the end result would be the same: at best, a negotiated ceasefire with only part of the Taliban confederation and a number of sporadic attacks and infighting instigated by those elements unwilling or unable to lay down their weapons.
This current Afghan government has many problems to deal with
The current Afghan government has many problems that it has to address: rampant corruption, infighting between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah on a backdrop of ethnic and sectarian factionalism, territorial insecurity, chronic underdevelopment in almost all sectors of public and private life and an “Afghan fatigue” of the international community, who increasingly have to justify financing bottomless projects to their exacerbated electorate back home, who demand a more efficient use of their hard-earned taxes. Needless to say that the current government also has to deal with long standing problems of poppy cultivation and the incessant brain-drain towards Iran, Pakistan and beyond. The current Afghan government must of course be applauded for its efforts to reach out to the Taliban – however, it knows full well that its own standing is rather perilous.
The regional partners have barely changed their strategy in Afghanistan – in fact, they are hardening their stance
The regional actors have something to gain in the short term from the Afghan instability – in that respect, their mantras have evolved very little, though there are signs that the mid and long-term negative consequences of the current situation have been acknowledged – Russia held a conference on the Afghan security risk and possible solutions in late 2016 where it invited Iran and Pakistan as well as China (though some saw it as a direct affront to the US led peace initiative). Pakistan has recently declared that it was working to curb Afghan instability that originates on its territory, though with India taking a strategic interest in Kabul, one would expect the Pakistani government of being extremely wary. There are also signs that China is growing impatient with the chaos in Afghanistan that risks spilling over and impacting the security of its economic corridor in Pakistan. Iran meanwhile is thought to have discreet links with the Taliban in order to combat Isis in the region. In the short term therefore, one can expect each ethnic and sectarian group in Afghanistan to be supported financially and militarily by the regional powers – in that respect, the situation is not improving
Europe remains a cash cow for now
Since 2002, the European Union has provided €3.66 billion in development and humanitarian aid, making it the fourth largest donor in support of the Afghan people. Afghanistan is also the largest beneficiary of EU development assistance. In October 2014, the European Commission presented its Multiannual plan for Afghanistan (2014-2020) where it outlines a projected spending spree of €1.4 billion (ie close to €200 million per year). On top of this figure, one has to include the individual contributions that Member States may make bilaterally, either through their Defense and Foreign ministries, or though their state aid and development agencies. The numbers speak for themselves. Though Brussels will surely argue that their spending is worthwhile in order to reduce the violence and illegal migration from Afghanistan to Europe, the fact remains that Afghan migrants are still the 2nd most populace group in Europe at the moment, and have been for the last 2 years. At a time when tackling migration is such a red-hot priority for a number of European governments, some of whom have their very political survival tied up in the issue, and indeed the European institutions themselves who currently have to battle against a growing sentiment of defiance, Afghanistan is once-again thrust in the spotlight. The decisions to organized chartered flights back to Afghanistan for illegal migrants, whilst controversial, are nevertheless effective in bringing the Afghan government to its senses. Put simply – given the amount of money unsustainably received by Kabul since 2001, the Afghan authorities now have to act. However, the Afghan authorities can only do so much – regional powers must take up the task of rendering Afghanistan more secure and stable.