The impending departure of Afghan President Hamid Karzai poses the following critical challenge to the United States: Broker a political power-sharing agreement with a jihadist movement without undermining the democratic institutions that the United States has tried to build over the past decade. Given that both the Taliban and anti-Taliban camps in the region are extremely divided, such an agreement will remain elusive well beyond next year's drawdown of Western forces from the southwest Asian nation.
Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar on Tuesday issued a statement saying the jihadist movement does not wish to monopolize power when Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year; instead the Taliban seeks "an inclusive government." This has been the Taliban's mantra since the group's 2011 Eid al-Fitr message
. Over the past two years, the Taliban have engaged the United States in negotiations toward this end, but Washington has long struggled to find a balance between the Taliban and what has come to be known as the Karzai regime.
Ideally, Washington hopes that negotiations with the Taliban can bring the Afghan jihadist movement into the political mainstream
. But negotiations have been extremely difficult for Washington, not only because of the Taliban's radical Islamist ideology, but also because of stiff resistance from the Afghan government, which fears that a deal between Washington and the Taliban would undermine Kabul.
A little less than two months ago there was a major showdown with the Karzai administration within hours of the opening of the Taliban's political bureau in Qatar. Washington was forced to pull back from talks with the Taliban following protests in Kabul over the Taliban's display of their flag at the bureau, along with signage that carried the name of their ousted regime.
The highly anticipated public talks have not taken place since that time, but as is the case in all such sensitive negotiations, the back channels remain active. Washington has likely been trying to steer both sides back to the formal negotiating table. At the same time, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been working with Pakistan. Islamabad over the past decade has lost a great deal of influence over the Taliban, but it is still the state actor with the most leverage over the group.
This was most evident when Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser to new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, visited Kabul on July 21, followed by a visit to Islamabad by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on July 31. Karzai is also due to visit Islamabad later this month to discuss improving Afghan-Pakistani ties and to urge Pakistan to prod the Taliban toward a settlement.
However, Karzai is fast approaching the end of his second and final term in office, and all players are adjusting to the reality of an impending post-Karzai Afghan state
. Elections are due to be held early next year to find a successor to Karzai, who has been all but synonymous with the Afghan state since its inception a few months after the United States toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001. It is not clear who will rule next, but Karzai's successor will face the daunting task of managing the disparate elements of the Afghan state, entering office at the same time Western forces, and the modicum of stability they brought with them, will be leaving the country.
While the Americans and the Pakistanis do not have a clear strategy for the impending succession, the Taliban appear to have some semblance of a plan. In his latest message, Mullah Omar denounced the forthcoming elections, calling them a waste of time. From the Taliban's perspective, the impending transition represents an opportunity for the group to enter the political mainstream and maximize its share of power.
According to an Aug. 6 AP report that quotes Taliban representatives and Afghan officials, the Taliban have held talks with the Afghan state via the High Peace Council, a body appointed by Karzai that includes anti-Taliban forces as well as former Taliban officials. In these talks, the Taliban have reportedly offered a number of concessions, including accepting most of the current Afghan Constitution. The Taliban are also apparently prepared to admit that it was a mistake to marginalize women from education and public life and are willing to accept female legislators.
In exchange, the Taliban want the winner of next year's election to lead a provisional authority, one that will schedule another round of elections shortly after the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. The Taliban's key demand — one they will not budge on — is that no residual force remain on Afghan soil after 2014. The Taliban have also said that they will not participate in elections for several years, which makes sense given that the movement is quite far from forming a political party. The core leadership hasn't even reached a consensus over the political bureau in Doha.
The Taliban's desire to postpone their electoral participation does not only indicate that they have a long way to go before they can effectively compete in elections. It is also due to the fact that political parties have no real power, a condition made clear in the Karzai era, given that the Afghan president ruled with the support of warlords. In an odd historical twist, the country's only true party in recent years has been the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Soviet-backed communist group that came to power via a military coup in 1978. The overthrow led to the civil war that continues to plague the country to this day.
In the same way that the Taliban see the end of the Karzai administration as an opportunity to claim a share of power, the United States hopes that the transition will provide an opening for all of the power groups in Afghanistan to enter the political mainstream. The Taliban are counting on this, especially next year, when the stakes will increase as the United States attempts to stick to its timetable for withdrawal. The Afghan jihadist movement knows that fighting its way into power will be extremely costly and is thus hoping to carve out an internationally recognized and preferably dominant role for itself in post-NATO Afghanistan. To do this, the Taliban are using a U.S.-backed political process — one that doesn't have to lead to a full cessation of the civil war.