Following a summer of promising electoral reforms, President Hamid Karzai is now moving to broker peace talks with the Taliban following years of failed attempts.
The Taliban were removed from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion because of their connection with Al-Qaeda. However, despite being politically usurped, the Islamist group has remained active in Afghanistan. For over a decade they have operated governing mechanisms that serve to both maintain their continued influence over the public while also undermining Karzai and the ruling government.
On 2 September, the Taliban attempted an ambush of a US base in the Nangarlar Province of eastern Afghanistan. The attackers were not able to gain access to the base, and the attack was considered a failure. However, this is just one of a recent series of assaults across Afghanistan, which vividly illustrates how the Taliban is still fully active and continues to assert their presence. These attacks come ahead of the planned withdrawal of US troops in 2014, another high risk situation approaching in the coming year.
In June 2013, US-led peace negotiations with the Taliban took place at their recently established office in Qatar. The talks quickly failed, with Karzai condemning them for taking place without his approval or involvement – an example of Karzai’s lack of control and political clout. With such a powerful player challenging the incumbent cabinet, democratic development and political stabilisation are becoming increasingly precarious. Progression cannot be ensured alongside the constant threat of insurgency.
On 26 August, Karzai visited Islamabad to speak with newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to secure a pledge of assistance in arranging direct talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the operations of the insurgent group, from funding their activities to providing training and supplies. Despite Islamabad’s unequivocal denial of this collaboration, it is commonly believed that the two are closely linked and that the Pakistani state is one of the few actors that can influence the Taliban, therefore making it the best candidate for engaging with the insurgent group.
The Taliban has often publicly condemned Karzai, referring to him as a puppet of the US, and refused to engage with the Afghan president. Although Sharif has pledged to facilitate a meeting between the opposing parties, no further details have been shared or specified. Furthermore, Karzai’s request to the Pakistani government to release prisoners, who he believes will be key in aiding the negotiation process, has not been met, perhaps also signifying Islamabad’s unwillingness to play mediator for Karzai.
Besides bringing a stop to terrorist activity and promoting political stability, Karzai is particularly keen to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to establish his premiership and ultimate authority in Afghanistan. It appears as though Karzai seeks to regain his political influence and control in the final year of his term by overcoming the one obstacle, which has continuously damaged his rule.
What does this mean for the upcoming presidential election set for April 2014? According to the recent electoral reforms, Karzai appears committed to a peaceful transfer of power. However, Karzai’s new attempt to engage with the Taliban is a significant political risk. If Karzai pushes too hard, he risks a political backlash, antagonizing the insurgent group and losing further public approval.
Is Karzai’s latest attempt to increase his political authority a sign of him trying to hold on to power? The April elections will be telling regarding the progress of democratisation in Afghanistan. The potential for failure is indeed significant, with several related risks, such as political instability and violence.
Should a spoiler come into play, such as the deliberate delay in the election by the incumbent president, the result could be disastrous, with a reversion to corruption and a state subjected to violence and stunted economic development. Until the political landscape in Afghanistan has settled to the point where the state can be considered secure, international investors will maintain high caution and keep their distance.