10th time lucky?

December 15, 2019

Will Afghanistan finally achieve peace?

In keeping with expectations, the Taliban-United States peace talks resumed recently in Qatar amid renewed hopes that the negotiations would lead to an agreement this time.

The earlier nine rounds of talks, spread over more than a year, had made real progress and a peace deal had almost been reached before President Donald Trump, true to his reputation for being unpredictable, called off the negotiations citing unconvincing reasons.

Meanwhile, the delay in announcement of the outcome of the Afghan presidential election held on September 28 has continued to cause concern. After several missed deadlines, no new date has been announced for making the result public. This has resulted in uncertainty about the process and fuelled speculation as to the motive of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission for delaying the result.

On the peace front, it appears that the two sides have stuck to their previous positions after the resumption of the peace talks on December 7 in Doha.

The Taliban had insisted that a peace agreement had been reached before President Trump abruptly ended the talks on September 8. They want the resumed meetings to focus on deciding the date, venue and format of the signing of the peace agreement. A Taliban spokesman has said that the talks have resumed from where these were broken off and revolved around the signing of the peace agreement.

The US, on the other hand, has maintained that the talks need to focus on reduction of violence that could leading to an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.

Taliban haven’t refused the intra-Afghan dialogue, but they want to do it their way by refusing to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. Taliban continue to argue that Afghan government officials can take part in intra-Afghan meetings - as they did in Qatar some months ago - in their individual capacity and not as representatives the government. This issue hasn’t been resolved yet though the Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen, has said the first intra-Afghan meeting would take place within 10 days of signing of the Taliban-US peace agreement. China is expected to host the first such meeting, though a number of other countries too have offered to do so.

The issue of ceasefire seems to have been almost resolved as Taliban have agreed to stop attacks against the US-led foreign forces after the peace agreement is signed and the withdrawal dates are announced. A ceasefire with the Afghan government forces is more tricky as Taliban are linking it to progress in the intra-Afghan talks. It is obvious that Taliban want to maintain military pressure on the Afghan government while taking part in the intra-Afghan meetings.

Meanwhile, Taliban have included Anas Haqqani, the youngest brother of Haqqani network head and Taliban movement’s deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, in their negotiating team. Though sentenced to death by a court in Kabul, Anas Haqqani was recently released by the Afghan government after five years in captivity along with two other important Taliban figures in exchange for a couple of Western hostages, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, who were kidnapped more than three years ago from outside the American University in Kabul where they were teachers, and 10 Afghan soldiers. Taliban had named the young Anas Haqqani as member of their negotiating team in a bid to save his life and secure his release. The prisoners’ swap, which benefited both sides, was a timely move to create the right atmosphere for the resumption of the talks.

Despite hurdles and occasional breakdowns the peace talks are likely to continue because all stakeholders, including the Taliban, the US and Afghan government, have realized that a military solution to the long-running conflict is no longer an option. It was almost unthinkable at one point that the US and Taliban would eventually negotiate to reach a political settlement. Also, the proposed Kabul-Taliban talks are being mentioned as more challenging than the Taliban-US negotiations, but these could make progress if enough pressure is brought by the Afghan people, global and regional powers and other stakeholders to bear on the Afghan government, its political opponents and the Taliban.

As for the Afghan presidential election, the historically low turnout, the allegations of rigging and premature claims of victory by both the leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah, have compounded the situation.

As for the Afghan presidential election, the historically low turnout, the allegations of rigging and premature claims of victory by both the leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah, have compounded the situation.

Dr Abdullah’s team continues to protest the delay in announcement of the election result, the recounting of the ballots and the alleged manipulation of the vote in favour of President Ghani. The supporters of Abdullah, the chief executive officer in the national unity government that organized the election, have staged protest rallies in Kabul and other cities, particularly in Abdullah’s strongholds in northern Afghanistan. Its representatives walked out of a meeting convened by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission in Kabul on December 8 to discuss the situation arising out of the delayed outcome of the polls.

After the embarrassing delays, the IEC has refrained from announcing any date on which the result will be made public. As both Ghani and Abdullah, the major contestants among the 13 who contested the poll, have already declared victory, it is certain that the loser will allege rigging and refuse to accept the outcome.

It appears that the IEC will declare Ghani the winner whenever the result is declared and Abdullah won’t accept the result and start agitating against it. This could further fuel the ethnic divide in Afghanistan as Ghani is backed largely by his fellow Pashtuns, who constitute almost half of Afghanistan’s population, while Abdullah has drawn greater support from Tajiks and Uzbeks.

The US may be forced once again to intervene as it did after the 2014 presidential election to avert a major crisis and likely violence in the country. Some people believe meanwhile that the announcement of the presidential election result is being delayed on the advice of the US, which first wants to conclude a peace deal with the Taliban before facilitating the intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Taliban-United States peace talks for Afghanistan: 10th time lucky?