For all the talk about peace negotiations with the Taliban, one word rarely comes up: cease-fire. Instead, the US and the Taliban talk while shooting, a fact brought home again with the major terrorist attack overnight on a landmark hotel in Kabul.
Such provocative targeting of civilians by the insurgents, as well as the civilian deaths that result from US-led operations, erode trust around the negotiating table. However, since both sides clearly intend to try to show a stronger hand on the battlefield, neither Afghan nor American observers expect the attack to shut down the peace process.
“When you see this kind of incident, especially in Kabul, it brings mistrust among the people over the peace process, but it does not means we will sit quiet and stop the peace efforts,” says Attaullah Lodin, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council.
He says at this point the peace talks have to involve those who deepen insecurity, including “foreign forces killing innocent and weak Afghans in the villages in their raids and bombings, or those [insurgents] who carry out attacks on the mosques and crowded areas.”
For many Westerners there is not the same equivalency between so-called collateral damage from military missions that target insurgents and a group that goes door-to-door in a hotel to hunt guests.
'Diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to friends'
But in a speech earlier this year making the case for peace talks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued against letting the Taliban’s brutality derail efforts to end the war.
"Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends," said Secretary Clinton. "But that is not how one makes peace.”
Still, the attack could have minor impacts on the calculations surrounding the talks.
It has not been clear whether the Taliban are using talks as a tactic to encourage international withdrawal, or if they are genuinely interested in finding a negotiated settlement. The continuation of major terrorist assaults only deepen this uncertainty. On the other hand, the attack is a reminder that despite 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban remain capable of striking inside the capital.
“I hope politicians are not too influenced by this [attack] and [do not] drop the political approach,” says Thomas Ruttig with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. “The attack yesterday showed that the Taliban cannot be gotten rid of through a military-only approach.”
What about a cease-fire?
In order to avoid the danger of each side outraging the other with stepped-up attacks, one solution is to seek some form of cease-fire to give space for talks.
A cease-fire would also help stop further fragmentation of the insurgency, which adds uncertainty to whether a peace deal could be enforced by Taliban leaders. As the US steps up attacks on mid-level commanders, fresh leaders are elevated who are not as bonded to the top-level leaders.
“When you continue to hammer the organization, that means you have more factionalization,” says Christine Fair, a regional expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “It does mean you are increasing your odds of having significant spoilers [to any settlement].”
Mr. Lodin says everyone on the High Peace Council is suggesting a cease-fire, but he does not expect it to happen soon. The Taliban, meanwhile, have demanded that foreign soldiers depart Afghanistan – which is a lopsided form of cease-fire – but the US has made it clear that withdrawal would be an outcome not a precondition or intermediate step.
The Taliban spokesman Mr. Mujahid declined to say much about the attack’s impact on peace talks.
“I do not want to comment on this since I did not get the official statement from the leadership, but I would say that the fight is going on on a daily basis, the enemy attacks us everywhere and the goal of freedom that we have, we can not forget that goal,” says Mujahid by phone.
Fair argues that the InterContinental was not really meant as a Western target since mostly Afghans these days actually stay overnight in the past-its-prime hotel. She sees this as a message to Afghans that while the internationals are starting to leave, the Afghan conflict remains.
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