Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish poet, once eloquently remarked, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” This week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made such an overture to the Taliban by outlining a bold peace proposal in Kabul.
Ghani’s conciliatory offer invited the Taliban to enter peace talks without preconditions, renounce violence and agree to a ceasefire. In return, the Taliban would be recognized as a legitimate political group.
Under Ghani’s proposal, the Afghan government would also allow the Taliban to open a political office in Kabul, issue Taliban members and their families Afghan passports, release the Taliban prisoners, get Taliban leaders removed from various blacklists and provide immunity, security and financial guarantees to Taliban members to resettle in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s peace pitch follows the Taliban’s recent open letter in which the group rambles about their battlefield gains, underscores the U.S.’s decisive role in the Afghan conflict and insists to engage in direct negotiations with Washington and not Kabul.
Interestingly, this comes amid an intensified U.S. military campaign against the group and in the wake of President Donald Trump’s statementthat talks with the Taliban are no longer on the table.
It should be noted that the Taliban are unlikely to ever be in a stronger position than they are right now to negotiate peace. Ghani’s peace bargain is as good as any deal for the Taliban. The question now is whether the Taliban and their sponsors will embrace it.
By any measure, the Taliban have transformed and are no longer the same group they were nearly 22 years ago. Today, the group is broadly divided between hardliners and moderates. The hardliners, a numerical minority of the group’s fighting force, comprise the Taliban’s leadership based in Pakistan.
These hardliners are mainly ideologues, allied closely with Pakistan’s intelligence services and cannot freely call shots on whether to engage in peace talks or not without Pakistan’s consent. Simply put, these Taliban elements are empowered by Pakistan to kill, but not to negotiate.
There are also moderate voices within the Taliban who are the numerical majority and includes local commanders, some shadow governors, foot soldiers and hired guns who prefer to talk peace.
However, both the hardliner and moderate Taliban are further split into smaller factions, and these groups often hold conflicting views on reconciliation. The hardliners purportedly believe in a military solution to the Afghan war and they have alienated the moderate Taliban voices, which favor negotiations.
Another challenge is that the Taliban have lost their pragmatic leaders through systematic internal marginalization, assassinations, detention and intimidation. Those leaders have been carefully replaced by uncompromising extremist elements who have closely weaved the Taliban movement into a broader extremist framework through alliances with terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network.
What do the Taliban hardliners want? In simplest terms, they want their Islamic Emirate back. In their view, the Taliban are making steady strides in that direction by expanding their control or influence over more territory, made possible not through negotiations but by their military efforts.
The Taliban’s territorial advances have animated the group’s resolve, and they have begun to put in place alternative government systems in areas they control. Meanwhile, many Taliban fighters have adopted a proper rotation system similar to conventional forces — first training in Pakistan, for example, then deploying to fight in Afghanistan, before retreating to Pakistan to rest.
If the Taliban leaders are serious about peace, how should they respond to Ghani’s peace proposal?
For starters, the Taliban need to publicly pronounce to Afghans their vision for Afghanistan. Does the Taliban want a country that resembles the one governed by their once-pariah regime, recognized merely by three countries?
Conversely, does the Taliban want an Afghanistan that is desired by the bulk of the Afghan people, where the people find the Taliban’s ideology too extreme and are defying it? The latter is a new, present-day Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, the choice between these two prospects seems rather clear: Continue to fight for something the Afghan people do not accept, or moderate the group’s extreme ideology to a level that is amenable to the people.
The Taliban also need to engage with the Afghan people, not by stoking fear but through dialogue, which the group has so far failed to do.
Second, the Taliban’s leadership council should demonstrate their seriousness to negotiate peace by appointing a peace envoy, a principal who would engage in negotiations with all sides, especially the Afghan government.
The leadership council should also appoint a Taliban negotiating committee, with explicit authority to confer, accept or veto any peace terms during the talks on behalf of the Taliban movement. This envoy and the negotiating committee should include those who are trusted by all sides, including the moderate Taliban, and who can genuinely coalesce the Taliban movement around one negotiated deal.
In addition to permitting the Taliban envoy to open a political office in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Afghan government should also allow the committee members to travel freely for negotiations.
More crucially, the Taliban committee should openly unveil their peace proposal for Afghanistan, a proposal that does not just offer a buffet of fantasies or vague justifications but one that is realistic.
Meanwhile, the Taliban envoy should publicly articulate a vision to the Afghan public by engaging with the media and in public debates. The Taliban must also realize that no perfect peace deal is achievable, for either them or the Afghan government.
For their part, Afghan political leaders must build an internal consensus on reconciliation, which is missing. The position of Afghan leaders on Taliban reconciliation varies based on where these leaders sit and who bankrolls them.
The challenge is that internal Afghan politics have become an important piece of the puzzle, crowded by a Sicilian-type mafia comprising warlords, strongmen, drug lords and criminals.
Toxic internal forces have made the Afghan political scene increasingly predatory, operating as an undemocratic patronage machine, where turf battles among factional leaders for money and muscle is a common occurrence.
These leaders could play a critical spoiler in peace talks with the Taliban, mainly to protect their vested interests and to avoid sharing the lucrative Afghan patronage pie.
Under these conditions, the United States should demand changes from Afghan leaders, particularly those who are actively imperiling Afghanistan’s future. This should include managing the complexities of the palace politics and a horde of the self-serving political mafia who engage in intrigue, deception and harmful machinations.
The United States should make it clear to the Afghan political class that Washington’s support is conditional on their behavior.
Unfortunately, the Taliban have so far been incapable of even pronouncing the word "peace," let alone negotiating it. Ghani’s peace proposal, however, offers a new window of opportunity to Taliban leaders and their backers to reciprocate, negotiate and become part of Afghanistan’s political fabric. This opportunity should not be wasted