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August 12, 2020

First intra-Afghan talks in Doha

National

 
August 12, 2020

ICG cautions Taliban’s transformation steep hill to climb

By Mariana Baabar

ISLAMABAD: As the Taliban and the Afghan government have prepared to initiate their first round of official face-to-face talks in Doha in upcoming days, Pakistan’s military command on Tuesday appreciated the progress of Afghan reconciliation process and hoped for an early commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue.

While an independent think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG), in its latest report, ‘Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspective on Peace’, said the foreign governments supporting the peace process should encourage Taliban to undergird its participation in negotiations with substantive internal debate and expanded external dialogue. It added that the Taliban urgently need to establish a consensus on contentious questioning about the agenda and pace of negotiations that should be structured in a way that allows the Taliban time to do something on key issues.

The ICG, while assessing the crucial Doha dialogue, points to the Taliban’s approach to key issues that will come up in peace negotiations. It said it is important to examine the ideological and intellectual underpinnings of their views. “Three areas of particular relevance are: (1) the group’s perceptions of US influence over the Afghan government and how they affect its willingness to deal with the latter, (2) the group’s perspective on its prior time in government and how that links to its present claims to power, and (3) its desire to bring a distinct but undefined Islamic dimension to Afghan governance”, it added.

A Taliban representative told the Crisis Group, “The [Afghan government’s] leaders care about keeping their foreign funders happy." A Taliban fighter echoed this view: "If the government wanted to end the war, it could do it in one day. Tell the Americans to go, listen to what the people want and reconcile with the Taliban. Establish a clean government but they won’t. The war is profitable for them so they can keep their jobs and the foreign money flowing”.

The ICG approached the members of Afghan civil society actors and foreign donors to encourage broader engagement. The Afghan government should mirror any shifts that occur in the Taliban’s behaviour and rhetoric, acknowledging and reciprocating any spirit of compromise. The Taliban should swiftly determine clear negotiating positions and be prepared to debate – and eventually reach compromises – on these as intra-Afghan talks unfold.

The US and other donors should leverage prospects of the post-transition assistance as encouragement, while the Afghan government and civil society should engage the group and its ideas. “The Taliban have some significant works ahead to make the transition from armed insurgency to political bargaining with their domestic opponents. Throughout their insurgency, the Taliban’s narrative was to focus on what they are against – the presence of foreign forces and what they call a “puppet” regime – rather than what they are for, beyond general assertions of the need for Islamic governance,” notes ICG. This will have to change, says the think-tank, adding that the political thinkers within the movement have begun to develop answers to the critical questions discussed in this report, as well as others, such as the nature of Afghanistan’s future foreign policy.

The presence of the ISIS and other foreign militants inside Afghanistan is also an important issue with one Taliban negotiator as in a simplistic response says, "We don’t consider them as armed individuals out there fighting for a cause, but just as desperate homeless families, who have nowhere to go. Is it fair for us to fight these poor second- and third-generation people in the name of a threat to the US? We want peace, not more fighting. We would do better if we find a township in Kabul for these families where they live under the surveillance of the future government and slowly integrate them into society”.

By easing security concerns that have long prevented such organisations from conducting extensive outreach into rural areas, the Taliban could win popular goodwill and ensure better representation for perspectives from areas under their influence. The donors and peace process supporters should recognise that the movement will take time to build internal consensus on negotiating positions. While some insurgencies around the world have developed sophisticated political wings during active conflicts, in some cases easing the transformation that a political settlement requires, the Taliban remain a primarily military organisation. For a huge

majority of Afghan women their rights are a major issue in any future dispensation. “Once at the intra-Afghan negotiating table, the Taliban are certain to face a number of difficult questions. These include what they want to change in the constitution and political system, and by what mechanism; how to protect the rights of women and minorities; and how to reform Afghan security forces, including what roles their own fighters should have”, says the report. One of the most widely expressed concerns about Taliban demands for a more “Islamic” system is the potential erosion of women’s and minorities’ rights, including those of smaller ethnic and non-Sunni religious groups.

Some senior members of the group privately admit the need to reach compromises on a number of substantive issues; they and the group’s other leaders need to urgently begin to steer their rank and file toward the same conclusion. The Afghan government should carefully monitor and mirror such shifts, scaling back aggressive rhetoric from its security officials in return.