Heavy snowfall has covered Kabul this winter and the nights have been bitterly cold, each hint of spring soon disappearing under more grey skies and bleak forecasts. In the city’s refugee camps, parents are waking up to find their children frozen to death. Roads, potholed and broken, are thick blocks of ice. Entire neighbourhoods are without water and the mountains that dominate the horizon are shrouded in fog. It feels like the capital is in stasis as people wait for the ground to thaw and the sun or rain to arrive.
Yet amidst all this, the US appears to have made a major political breakthrough.
In January the Taliban said it had agreed to open an office in the Gulf state of Qatar — potentially a key step towards eventual negotiations. The announcement was the first real indication of serious dialogue between the Islamist movement and Washington. But with the majority of foreign troops due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the principal insurgent group still refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the government here, huge questions remain.
If a halt to the fighting is possible, so, too, is greater discord and civil war. None of the main parties have shown a willingness to make the concessions necessary to stop the bloodshed and mistrust runs deep on all sides, including among officials whose job is to encourage reconciliation.
Established in 2010 with international support, the High Peace Council is meant to be at the forefront of any negotiations with the rebels. Now, though, some of its members are increasingly wary about the direction talks are going.
Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar is one of them. Speaking earlier this winter, his concerns far outweighed his optimism. The Qatar office was, he seemed to think, just another source of anxiety. "What we are afraid of is the games," he said, adding, "If the US would like to make a deal for the Afghans, you know the Afghans and history knows the Afghans: that will not work."
Qasemyar understands the volatile nature of politics here all too well, having spent time in jail, government and exile under different regimes over the past three decades. He returned from living in Iran to chair the 2002 national assembly that appointed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan’s transitional administration. Although he supports reconciliation, it is unclear what he is prepared to give in exchange for an end to the fighting. America must only facilitate discussions, not hold its own unilateral talks, he warned. If the US agrees to the Taliban’s demand that a handful of prisoners are freed from Guantanamo Bay, the detainees must be sent here, not to a third country. "It is very sensitive when Afghans come to their national pride and to their independence."
The High Peace Council received no prior notice of the Qatar announcement, and the reality is that many of its members have long been virulently opposed to the Taliban.
Qasemyar accused the movement of having "a narrow interpretation” of Islamic law when in power, oppressing women and massacring civilians. He fears a premature withdrawal of Nato troops but is against any possible plan to offer the insurgents formal control of government ministries or certain provinces. “The Taliban will not be in a position to return as rulers,” he said. “That was a dream that is gone. It will not materialise again. But this problem: this fighting and killing and suicide bombs and explosions — these miseries, yes, [they will continue].”
Qasemyar is not alone in refusing to budge from his core beliefs. In public at least, there is very little anyone is willing to put on the negotiating table. Washington and Kabul have always insisted the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution — a condition anathema to a movement ideologically against democracy.
Just as crucially, the long-term fate of the occupation has still not been decided. The US recently announced it hopes to step back from combat operations in the country by mid-2013, more than a year earlier than expected.
Whether this happens or not, the insurgents know they have a short period to wait before the majority of American and Nato forces leave Afghanistan and the government is significantly weaker. Should a few thousands troops stay after 2014 in some kind of scaled-down advisory and security role, this will neither appease the Taliban’s demand that all 130,000 foreign troops are withdrawn, nor be enough to suppress the resistance and prevent the state’s collapse.
Given all this, it could be that the militants have no intention of making a deal and are simply playing for time.
Suspicions were heightened last September when Burhanuddin Rabbani, the High Peace Council’s chairman, was killed at his home in Kabul. An opponent of the Taliban’s since the 1990s, his appointment a year earlier had led some to wonder how serious the government was about negotiations.
No one has claimed responsibility for the assassination but Aminuddin Mozaferi, a council board member, said there was “no doubt” the Taliban played a major role. He believes Afghans must be at the forefront of all talks because only they will be able to understand the militants’ thinking. "If we are working honestly with the insurgents and the government, they need to work honesty with us. If they are not honest peace will not come," he said in January.
President Karzai appears to share these concerns, recently visiting Pakistan and pressing Islamabad for an opening to the Taliban’s leadership. Yet many here feel he has a better chance of progress with another insurgent group.
Hizb-e-Islami was one of the main political parties at the forefront of the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s and is now active across much of northern and eastern Afghanistan. It splintered after the US invasion, when some members joined the democratic process and others chose to fight. Led by a former prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rebel faction has often clashed on the battlefield with the Taliban and its representatives have held a series of meetings with Afghan and American officials over the years. “They accept elections and parliament,” said Mozaferi, who was in Hizb-e-Islami until 1992. “They need to get an assurance that the foreign troops will leave.”
Ultimately, both the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami must feel they are negotiating from positions of strength. Lightly armed men do not spend over a decade resisting the might of the US and Nato if they are inspired only by a lust for power. The majority of insurgents believe they are fighting for God otherwise they would have chosen the easy option and laid down their weapons long ago. That will make it harder to pacify them at this late stage, when they have sacrificed so much for the cause and sense victory is imminent.
If the Taliban’s leaders accept the terms on offer, they need to reject ideas fundamental to their movement’s existence. Should this improbable scenario occur, they cannot guarantee their foot soldiers and commanders will follow.
Success with Hizb-e-Islami would not necessarily help stop the bloodshed either. Hekmatyar himself has predicted the government’s collapse after 2014 and may simply view a deal before then as a chance to outmaneuver his rivals.
Ordinary Afghans understand the odds are against peace, having seen similar reconciliation efforts fail in the Soviet era. What followed was a catastrophic civil war that laid waste to Kabul as the international community turned to problems elsewhere in the world. Only time will tell if history is repeating itself.
The likelihood is that when the winter fades, the dawn of spring will herald another fighting season worse than the last. The talks will continue because all sides know they must, but the stakes are now too high for anyone to back down.