Talking about offices


Suddenly everyone is talking about offices – whether the Afghan Taliban Movement should have a political office, where it should be located and what the office should be used for.

Before examining the potential for agreement on a political office, a reality check is in order. For the moment, all parties to the Afghan conflict seem to regard war-fighting as default mode and there is little chance of that changing any time soon. Of course, the point of reconciliation efforts is to find a way out of that impasse. But anyone attempting to kick-start a reconciliation process, whether through sanctioning a Taliban office or other “confidence building measures”, should bear in mind that there is no guarantee that the efforts will actually stop the fighting.

A Taliban office certainly would represent a significant break with the way that the war has been run for the past decade. One of the distinctive features of the post-2001 Afghan conflict has been that the main insurgent group has been wholly clandestine. Since their government was toppled, the Afghan Taliban have operated behind a largely self-imposed iron curtain. This is not the same as saying that they have lacked a civilian wing. Actually, over the years, the Taliban have built up multiple civilians structures. Their Cultural Commission (which works on propaganda) and Political Commission (which works on strategy) are most famous. But they also have bodies charged with prisoner welfare, judicial affairs, education, assistance and resource mobilization. And of course their shadow administration – the Taliban provincial and district governors – purport to deal with civilian matters. But all these bodies all operate without an “address” i.e. they are not accessible to those outside the Taliban Movement. Even Afghan civilian petitioners trying to approach the Taliban with complaints or requests have to knock on many doors before they can find an authorized official of the movement. For the purposes of propaganda of course the Movement has been obliged to show a public face. It maintains a presence on the internet as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and its spokesmen present what they say is the Movement’s official view on political and military developments. But the Movement’s propaganda arm engages only on its own terms, available as a mouthpiece, but not for debate and certainly not for peace talks.

There was nothing inevitable about the Taliban iron curtain approach. Insurgent groups around the world have found ways of operating civilian fronts in the public domain, even if their military wings remain clandestine.  In the current insurgency Hizb Islami has allowed key confidants of leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar, such as Dr. Ghairat Baheer, to operate in the public domain. The Taliban decision to shield their active members and officials from external contacts is driven by both security and political considerations. Firstly the clandestine approach is a defence against arrest, infiltration and disruption, in response to the security measures they have faced in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The inclusion of Taliban senior figures on a UN sanctions list has acted as a deterrent against any attempts to establish a Taliban presence away from their home turf of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Until now no country has been prepared to take the diplomatic risks that would be associated with allowing Taliban to operate openly. The clandestine strategy has also allowed the Talban Movement to project strength, by claiming a national presence without ever really having to line up supporters to back the claims. The clandestine approach offers the Taliban some degree of isolation from petty Afghan politics. By masking the identity of its commanders, the Taliban movement tries to avoid getting hemmed in by their tribal links and enmities. And of course the iron curtain is a way of maintaining cohesiveness. Taliban functionaries are only supposed to operate within the command chain and can be intimidated from maintaining unauthorized contacts, which might lead to collaboration or defection. And of course anonymous Taliban commanders are easily sackable and replaceable. The clandestine approach helps the central leadership maintain discipline.


The renewed talk of a Taliban political office has produced a debate of sorts on the Kabul side. President Karzai delivered a rare rebuke to the Emirate of Qatar by announcing the recall of the Afghan Ambassador from Doha “for consultations”. In background briefings the government let it be known that it objected to the Qatari failure to consult with the Afghan government on the issue. The simplest interpretation of this is that Kabul demands a veto on any office plan. Until now the Afghan government has repeatedly, publicly insisted that any peace process must be “Afghan led” and has made it clear that this means it must be in the lead. The objection to Qatar’s role in the putative office could be seen as Kabul enforcing its “Afghan-led” and thus consistent with its previous stance.

However, the Kabul government is not just protesting about being left out of the loop. In the wake of the Qatar controversy, the government has come up with what it describes as ten conditions for negotiations with the armed opposition. First, any office should be solely for the purpose of peace negotiations with the government. Second, the office should be either in Afghanistan or a Muslim country. Third, the host government should be in charge of organizing the first round of negotiations. Fourth, fighting should stop before the opening of negotiations. Fifth, the armed opposition should cut their links with Al Qaeda and all other terrorist groups. Sixth, the negotiations should protect all achievements of the past ten years. Seventh, all participants of negotiations should accept the Afghan constitution. Eighth, the negotiations should protect the sovereignty and national unity of Afghanistan. Ninth, only fully authorized, recognized representatives should take part in negotiations. Tenth, because the Taliban receive their backing in Pakistan, the Pakistani government should support the peace moves. Anyone familiar with the debate on strategies for bringing the Taliban into a peace process will know that there is little likelihood of the movement accepting such conditions as a pre-condition for negotiations. United States representatives have long ago shifted to explaining that the end to violence, break with Al Qaida and agreement on the constitution are all desired outcomes for negotiations, rather than preconditions. If the ten points are to be taken seriously, they also force all sides to consider what “Afghan-led” means. Point one makes the government position on this pretty clear. The sole purpose of a Taliban political office must be for negotiation with the Kabul government and by implication Kabul will object to any office arrangement which allows the Taliban to talk to stake-holders other than its authorized representatives.

It seems that the government has not been able to enforce a monopoly on “talking about offices”. Accordingly the unarmed opposition in Kabul has published its four points welcoming the idea of establishment of a Taliban office leading to peace negotiations. According to the National Front, firstly all anti-Taliban groups should take part in peace negotiations, thus ending the government monopoly on talks, as. Secondly the United Nations should lead the talks process, because of the failure of government efforts hitherto. Thirdly, the National Front wants to see talks used to promote a full range of rights and freedoms. Fourthly, talks should create an opportunity to overhaul the flawed system of government which is largely responsible for persistent instability. Interestingly enough, one of the predecessors of the National Front adopted a position in favour of inviting the Taliban to a new international peace conference even before the Kabul government came out in favour of reconciliation. The Front’s latest points are calculated to show how it believes it can pursue its political programme (radical decentralization) through a reconciliation deal. Although there is little evidence that Taliban share the National Fornt’s enthusiasm for decentralization, by entering the fray the Front has at least proven that there is more than one viewpoint, on the anti-Taliban side, about how to proceed.

The Taliban themselves have been most conspicuously absent from the latest public debate on offices. The movement’s biggest public shift towards endorsement of a political process was the 1 September “Eid message”. The leadership has avoided taking an official position on the merits of an office although it seems reasonable to conclude that the leadership has accepted the idea of having an office, as Tayyab Agha, the man who has negotiated on their behalf during the year, has pushed the idea. However it is also likely that the Taliban leadership has rather different aspirations for a political office from those in the government and National Front’s points. Since the overthrow of the Taliban government its leadership has looked for some form of international recognition as a legitimate political actor. Taliban supporters have long objected to the way in which the United Nations sanctions seem to brand their leaders as terrorists. The Taliban would undoubtedly herald the opening of any office as evidence that the world had finally come round to accepting the movement as a key player in Afghanistan. The moot question is just how much peace negotiation the Taliban are prepared to stomach in return for their international pied de terre.

The issue of the office is a microcosm of the putative peace settlement. None of the main actors is going to achieve the demands it has set out. The Taliban will struggle to assert that the office signifies international legitimacy, as the office will be hemmed in by host country conditions to prevent it from becoming an embarrassing propaganda platform. The National Front will find that it is easier to set up a Taliban office than it is to get consensus on the way towards decentralized government. The government will find that there are few takers for their ten points and the more they insist upon them, the more other stakeholders will conclude that the government puts self-preservation before peace. It remains to be seen whether Qatar or any of the other putative hosts can persuade the Taliban to go ahead with the office, despite all these attempts to impose conditions.