There will be four big losers if the Afghan Peace Negotiations fail to create an Afghan society and governance model that is acceptable to the majority of the Afghan people and upholds the 1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
First and foremost are the Afghan people, as the nightmare of 40 years of war and chaos will continue. Second is the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as a failure to negotiate a just ending to the current war could cause many nations to lose interest in Afghanistan at a time they desperately need long-term partners. Third, is the Taliban militia, as a failure to reach a settlement shows they don’t care about the safety and security of the Afghan people, as much as they care about taking power. Finally, there is Pakistan, a financially struggling nation ripe with radicalized and violent men in a volatile region where they don’t need another enemy.
The Taliban militia is stubbornly refusing to enter into any kind of cease fire to signal that the talks have begun. They should have already entered a temporary cease fire to build trust with the Afghan people by showing that they are serious about peace negotiations. There is a possibility that this stubbornness will result in the talks falling apart. Let’s look at the risks of failed talks for the Taliban.
If the talks fail, the Taliban will be forced to continue to try to take over the country by force, instead of gaining some measure of power through diplomacy. The Taliban have already stated, and known for a lot longer, that they are no match for the ANDSF on the battlefield. The Afghan Special Forces and the Air Force alone are capable of killing Taliban by the dozens in combat. That means the Taliban would be choosing to leave peace talks to face an enemy they cannot defeat.
It is true that Pakistan will support the Taliban for as long as possible to help the Taliban fighters to start to raise enough men to compete with the ANDSF, but any Taliban advantage gained against the Afghan government in combat will cost the Taliban thousands of lives. The ANDSF have been in the lead on the battlefield since 2015 when NATO and the Coalition stepped into support mode and started to withdraw large numbers of forces. The ANDSF shows no signs of weakening; in fact they are getting more capable and creating even more intelligent, adaptive, and successful leaders. Choosing to walk away from peace to face the meat grinder of the ANDSF is an unwise move for the Taliban.
The Taliban will also lose all the diplomatic prestige and goodwill they have earned in the 11-year process of entering into peace talks, that began with Karzai’s outreach in 2009. The Taliban’s diplomatic standing is not very strong, and most nations do not trust them to keep their word. What little goodwill they have earned will be gone in an instant if they walk away from talks. The Afghan government has the upper hand in these negotiations because they are the legally recognized government and have the full backing of the United Nations and major key nations around the globe. The Taliban should think very hard about how difficult it would be to build back any diplomatic credibility before they walk out of Doha to fully recommit to war.
The Taliban will also lose the possible financial support of the world if they leave the talks. If the Taliban accept some part of government power in a peace settlement, they along with the rest of the Afghan people can count on millions of dollars in development money continuing to flow into Afghanistan. If the Taliban walk away from talks and the war goes into overdrive, many nations are going to walk away for good from the Afghan people in frustration. When that foreign interest and money leaves, it will be a near-impossible challenge to bring it back.
If the Taliban miss this chance to rejoin the world community and have a normal life again, there are a few things in the U.S.-Taliban Doha deal that will not happen. The U.S. will not drop their sanctions against the Taliban but will likely increase them. The White House will likely designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization and increase U.S. coalition counter-terrorism operations against them in partnership with the ANDSF. The UN will also place more sanctions to the Taliban and its leadership. Finally, if the Taliban walk away from talks, they can expect many nations to leave their military forces in Afghanistan to continue to mentor and train the ANDSF in their mission of hunting down the Taliban fighters. It will not take long for the ANDSF to locate the 5,000 Taliban prisoners they released.
Pakistan is financially in trouble and needs to assess how long they can afford to continue to fund the Taliban and keep their own people from turning on Islamabad. If Pakistan fails to ensure their proxy, the Taliban, reach some sort of agreement the costs could be very high, internally, and from outside nations.
Pakistan can expect increased international pressure on them to fight all terrorists and to cut off aid to the Taliban. If the Taliban walk away from peace talks, Pakistan runs the risk of being listed as a supporter of terrorism by more than one nation. That designation could truly cripple an already struggling economy. A terror-supporter designation will also ensure that US counter-terrorism forces will continue to operate in South Asia for years assisting the ANDSF and others in hunting down terrorists.
The UN and US may also create special sanctions to punish Pakistan if their proxy force walks out of peace talks. It is possible that all Pakistani military and intelligence members and their families could be named in sanctions for visa or travel restrictions. Imagine the uproar in Pakistani families if all the military children studying abroad were forced to come home without a degree.
In February 2020 I briefed some Pakistani ISI generals about what the world expects them to do to prove they are standing against terrorists like the Taliban. One general complained that Pakistan had already helped the US and Taliban begin peace talks—and asked “what else do you want us to do?” I answered that the world expects the Pakistani government to stop all funding and arming of the Taliban, to close down all Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, to arrest known Taliban members, to stop the flow of bomb making materials to Afghanistan, and to accept international cooperation to fight terrorism. The world is still waiting for Pakistan to comply with these requests.
The costs of the Taliban leaving the peace talks still might be a risk that the Pakistan military is willing to take. The world should also be wary that if the Pakistanis finally dump the Taliban for failing at the peace negotiations, they might just turn to another proxy force that the world despises. Until Pakistan changes its strategy about Afghanistan and slows down the religious radicalization that just caused a college professor to help murder another college professor of another Muslim sect –Pakistan will remain in a more dangerous situation than Afghanistan.
Peaceful afghanistan is an Engine for Progress
The costs are high for all members of the Afghan Peace Negotiations. The risks of failure offer some frightening possibilities for the region. While the world is watching, and still cares about the outcomes, it would be wise for the Taliban and Pakistan to take the best deal they can get and end the violence and chaos in Afghanistan. A peaceful Afghanistan will become an engine for progress in South Asia, but an increasingly violent Afghanistan will continue to ruin lives, economies, and societies.