Political Trends in Pakistan and what to expect from the Kabul-Taliban Negotiations? A Conversation with South Asia scholar Dr. Marvin Weinbaum

Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum

In the seventh segment of the NESA Interview Series, Professor Hassan Abbas interviews Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, who is serving as the Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is Professor Emeritus of political science. Dr. Weinbaum also served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. His issues of expertise include national security, state building, democratization, political economy, and political culture. He is the author or editor of six books and has written more than 100 journal articles and chapters. For more information on prestigious publications and awards he has received visit: https://www.mei.edu/experts/marvin-g-weinbaum.

HASSAN ABBAS: Your scholarship and expertise on Afghanistan and Pakistan has enriched policy conversations in the US as well as South Asia. Your recent commentary on prospects of a negotiated settlement with Afghan Taliban recommends caution and concern. Please share with our readers your insights on the topic.

MARVIN WEINBAUM: The struggle against the Taliban falls into a class of conflicts that is well recognized historically in Afghanistan and worldwide as essentially non-negotiable. These conflicts are not about territory, resources or even power for its own sake but about ideas and values. In Afghanistan over the last 40 years insurgency has involved an Islamic challenge to state authority. The Islamic challenge is layered on top of an even older rural-urban division between conservative and more secular values. All existential conflicts over the nature of the state, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, almost enviably end with one dictating the outcome.

The parties to the Afghan conflict would all prefer a country at peace. The problem lies in their insistence that peace be on their terms. They disagree even more fundamentally in that the Taliban and the Kabul government and its supporters aspire to a vastly different kind of Afghanistan, one envisioning a theocratic Islamic state, the other a constitutionally liberal democratic political order. The belief that there can be a politically negotiated settlement rests on the idea that they can come together in a political settlement despite their differences over values systems and a history of nearly decades of conflict. It assumes a military outcome for the conflict is impossible or too costly for the country to absorb and seeks through compromise a power sharing arrangement between the adversaries. Unfortunately, much of this is wishful thinking and a refusal to confront a harsh reality.

Notwithstanding, every effort should be made to explore opportunities to find a peaceful outcome to the Afghan conflict. It is reasonable to remain in negotiations with the Taliban to better understand its aims and find areas of any agreement, particularly if these talks can achieve a reduction in the level of violence. But in doing so it is also important to keep in mind that the evidence to date in negotiating with the Taliban points to it seeing diplomacy not as a means to find common ground but together with their military power as means to achieve political dominance. On no occasion thus far in negotiating either with the U.S. or the Kabul government representatives have the Taliban agreed to compromise on an issue of any significance. In every case when the peace process has inched forward, it has been the other side that has yielded. Curiously, nearly all the current speculation about a negotiated outcome is about the nature of a possible Taliban regime and not a government of shared powers.

HASSAN ABBAS: What are your recommendations for Kabul in terms of how to effectively negotiate with the Taliban? 

MARVIN WEINBAUM: Despite my pessimistic view of the possibility of reaching an overarching peace deal with the Taliban, the intra-Afghan talks currently underway and those that may follow in other venues are worthwhile if only because of what they reveal about the Taliban’s leadership and aims. It is necessary to discard many of the expectations we normally associate with negotiating processes. Because the Doha talks have the familiar trappings usually associated with formal negotiations, we should not assume that these can lead to hard bargaining designed to eventually produce compromises. The Taliban, it should be understood, has come to the table not to argue about differences but to try to wear down the government side into conceding to its demands. The Taliban should also be expected to use every opportunity to draw a wedge between the varied interests represented in the government delegation. However much the Taliban may drag out negotiations, it should not be expected to break off the talks. The Taliban have come to greatly value the use of diplomacy that has already handsomely rewarded it with the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. forces, the release of thousands of government-held prisoners, and an unimagined degree of international legitimacy, mostly coming at the expense of the Kabul government.

It is easy to be misguided in formal and informal interactions with the Taliban. The current Taliban organization bears little resemblance to their austere, insular predecessor of the 1990s. Today’s Taliban political leadership is more worldly and sophisticated thanks to foreign travel and contacts. Having now the services of those highly skilled in strategic communications, the leaders are far more adept in relating to their adversaries and conscious of what pleases them to hear. It often surprises people how apparently open the Taliban can be to hearing opposing views. It is easy to believe that its leaders have been influenced only to find at the end of a discussion that they are unmoved in their thinking.

The Afghan delegation should not be under the illusion that eventually–once the full difficulties of negotiating with the Taliban become clear–the international community but particularly Pakistan and the United States will step in and force the Taliban to make concessions. The ability of outside actors. to pressure the Taliban has largely run its course. The long espoused goal of an “Afghan owned” peace process has largely become a reality. The U.S. retains some influence but its standing with the Kabul government is greatly diminished. Pakistan, while having helped to bring the Taliban to the table, has never been able to move its Afghan clients to do anything they believed required compromising on core principals.

Read more about Dr. Weinbum’s perspective on the on-going peace talks.

MARVIN WEINBAUM: The release of the Middle East Institute’s co-sponsored report Seizing the Moment for Change came shortly before Washington and the rest of the country were thrust into a coronavirus-driven shutdown. This national crisis put aside efforts to promote among U.S. policy makers a report intended to identify various pathways for the improvement of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Looking hopefully for a return to a more normal time, the findings and recommendations are expected to retain their validity and applicability.

The report is the product of a collaboration of more than two dozen individuals with expertise on Pakistan. It finds an unusual opportunity for fresh initiatives that could bring greater stability to a bilateral relationship that has waxed and waned in what is often described as a rollercoaster. It is marked by periods of strong strategic interdependence as well as mutual recrimination. At a time of neither high promise nor crisis in the relationship, the report found this a promising stage for engaging in a more deliberative approach to thinking about the relationship, and for the advancement of new initiatives that can put it on sounder footing.

Four U.S. objectives are identified as reasons for pursuing a more reliable relationship with Pakistan: (1) eliminating the possibility of terrorist organizations using the region to mount attacks on the U.S.; (2) looking to Pakistan to help secure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan;

(3) assuring Pakistan’s careful custodianship of its nuclear arsenal; (4) the avoidance of nuclear conflict on the subcontinent. Less explicit but instrumental to realizing these objectives is Pakistan’s political and economic stability.

The report recognizes that while there are areas of divergent strategic priorities between the two countries, there are also important areas in which to promote greater convergence in their national interests. To that end, a set of recommendations mainly directed to U.S. policy makers is proposed. In the security area, among its recommendations are retaining U.S. engagement in the region, continuing a security assistance program with Pakistan, and encouraging intelligence sharing between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the economic sphere, the report favors support for Pakistan that will lessen dependence on China but also recognizes that China’s investment that succeeds in stabilizing Pakistan’s economy can be in American interests. Among other recommendations, the U.S. is encouraged to use its own assistance to focus on gender and economic empowerment, and environmental issues. Addressing social and political issues, the report includes asking the U.S. to consider easing travel restrictions and renewing visitor programs designed to increase Pakistan’s opinion makers’ understanding of the U.S.  In concluding, the report discusses the importance of overcoming the often distorted images both countries’ elites and general public have of one another.

HASSAN ABBAS: Pakistan’s domestic politics is becoming more interesting over time and the civil-military hybrid model is testing Pakistan’s democratic credentials, especially when it comes to media freedoms and rule of law! Religious extremism and sectarianism is also raising its ugly head again. Any thoughts on these trends?

MARVIN WEINBAUM: The trend lines for democracy in Pakistan are once again headed in the wrong direction. The always tenuous but critical relationship between the country’s civilian and military leadership is being tested. At the same time, with the capacity of the government and the health infrastructure to manage the coronavirus crisis strained and the economy struggling to adjust, the political class is engaged in its all too familiar bloodletting. Substantive government decision-making and systemic economic and social reform have grinded to a virtual halt.

The collaboration forged in the 2018 election between the Imran Khan government and the military holds. But the military playing its stewardship role cannot ignore the eroded popularity of the prime minister and the largely disappointing performance of his administration. Neither can it overlook the mounting challenge of opposition parties fighting to bring down the government before Senate elections next March that could take away a last vestige of opposition power. While the military’s remaining bridges to the dissident parties are not entirely burned, the option of partnering with any of the mostly discredited, untrusted opposition politicians is unattractive. This leaves the status quo as the military’s best arrangement. As such, at least for the time being the Khan government’s lease on power is likely to hold.

Dr. Weinbaum speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan

The military has its own insecurities. What concerns it most is not the vengeful politicians but the possible loss of the public’s confidence and esteem. As a result, over the last year it has embarked along with an equally thin-skinned government in what is even for Pakistan a remarkable stifling of criticism from any quarter, especially the mass and social media, and civil society. The clamps placed on them comes about mostly through intimidation. Passage recently by the parliament of a Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government-sponsored legislation reinforces the threats. By criminalizing any criticism, the military hopes to further cement its perch above all other institutions in Pakistani society.

Pakistan’s domestic politics have become especially ugly. Prime minister Khan and the government are unrelenting in their determination to decapitate the leadership of opposition parties. The PTI has ramped up its efforts to bring the opposition to “justice” through numerous cases being pursued by the National Accountability Bureau and in the courts. Charges of corruption and sedition and political point-scoring fill the political scene. The government’s unwillingness to compromise and the prime minister’s refusal to even talk to the opposition has so raised the political temperature of the country that the military leadership finds it necessary at times to quietly assume a mediating role.

The domestic political landscape could continue to darken with massive rallies by the opposition in coming weeks, especially if they are accompanied by renewed Sunni-Shia sectarian violence and fresh attacks by Pakistan’s Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan. The military cannot avoid being involved in helping to bring order to the country. But for the time being at least, the generals seem prepared to have the Khan administration try to handle the brewing crises. Should these get clearly out of hand, then the military’s coming out of the barracks cannot be ruled out.

Be sure to read the earlier installments of the South Asia Series:

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.