Is the hardest part yet to come?

September 6, 2020

Intra-Afghan talks appear to be in the offing; albeit marked by more challenges than the 18-months-long Taliban-US talks

The most significant points two points uppermost in the minds of Afghanistan watchers today are whether the Taliban and their rival Afghans would finally engage in the long-delayed intra-Afghan negotiations and if the talks would bring peace and stability in Afghanistan after more than four decades of war.

In reply to the first point, one can safely say that the intra-Afghan dialogue would definitely take place. It could happen within days. Reports coming out of Kabul say that the Afghan government is sending its 20-member team of negotiators to Doha, Qatar, on September 4 even though the date for starting the intra-Afghan negotiations hasn’t been officially announced yet. The warring sides have made the required preparations and could start talking as soon as they overcome the last remaining hurdle holding up the process.

That hurdle was non-completion of the exchange of 6,000 prisoners, including 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 Afghan servicemen, agreed upon in the February 29 peace deal signed by the US and Taliban in Doha, Qatar. This obstacle is finally being removed as the release of the remaining prisoners is now under way.

Taliban had bargained hard during the 18-months- long negotiations with the Americans to secure this demand., It is surprising that the US accepted it despite knowing that Taliban prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan government, which was neither a participant in the peace talks nor party to the agreement. Either it felt confident that Kabul would do whatever Washington decided because it was the largest donor of civil and security aid to the Afghan government and was sustaining it in power, or it wanted to give the beleaguered Afghan government some leverage by letting it use the prisoners’ issue to pressure the Taliban to accept some of its core demands, including a ceasefire and unconditional intra-Afghan talks.

Despite making an effort to press this advantage by deliberate delays and foot-dragging, the Afghan government was unable to make the Taliban, stubborn as ever, agree to a reduction in violence. Taliban made it clear that ceasefire could only be considered once the intra-Afghan dialogue was undertaken., Bbut, for that to happen they wanted all their 5,000 prisoners freed under the terms of the Doha deal.

Ashraf Ghani, convinced that as an elected president he represented the Afghan nation and wasn’t required to accept Taliban demands, tried one way after another not to release the Taliban prisoners. Initially, he refused to abide by the Doha agreement by arguing that his government wasn’t bound to implement the prisoners’ swap agreed upon by the US and Taliban. Under US pressure, he later agreed to release the prisoners, but in instalments. Then he mentioned the case of 400 Taliban prisoners who in his view were a danger to the world as they had been convicted by courts for committing the most heinous crimes. He argued that it was beyond his authority as president to free these 400 prisoners and was, therefore, convening the Consultative Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly of tribal elders, elected representatives, members of the intelligentsia to seek its opinion on the issue. Women activists too were part of the Loya Jirga as has been the case in the post-Taliban period. Such Loya Jirgas normally take decisions desired by the government and this one advocated that the 400 Taliban prisoners be released for the sake of the peace process.

Another unknown factor in making a success or failure of the Afghan peace process is the US presidential election. 

An unforeseen issue then emerged when France and Australia objected to the release of six, or seven according to the Taliban, for having killed their soldiers deployed in Afghanistan as part of the invading NATO force. The Afghan government and the US had to sort out this issue even though the latter too was reported to have objected to the release of certain prisoners. The Taliban leadership, including the recent Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar-led delegation that visited Pakistan, was asked to enter talks with the rival Afghans to remove the uncertainly about the peace process because their prisoners would be freed sooner or later. Taliban are now reporting that these seven Taliban prisoners would be flown to Doha and delivered to their Political Commission before the start of the intra-Afghan talks. In fact, Taliban are hailing them as heroes and preparing to welcome them in Qatar with full protocol.

Until now, Taliban have got what they wanted as is evident from the Doha agreement. However, the intra-Afghan dialogue would be far more challenging than the Taliban-US talks that yielded a deal after 18 months of tough negotiations. Taliban certainly have a more united front as their 23 negotiators are all senior members, including 65 percent belonging to their top decision-making body, Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council), and accountable to one supreme leader, Shaikh Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Afghan delegation, on the other hand, includes both supporters and opponents of President Ghani, and sometimes have different views on the peace process. Abdullah Abdullah, who is nominally a coalition partner of Ghani, has been more supportive of unconditional peace talks with Taliban unlike Ghani who tried and failed to put up tough conditions in the process.

An unknown factor in making a success or failure of the Afghan peace process is the US presidential election. With only two months left in holding of the polls, the outcome could impact the way Afghanistan is handled by the winner. If Trump wins, he would want to continue his policy and pull his forces completely from Afghanistan by May next year as agreed upon in the Doha deal. He has described the Afghan war, the longest in US history at 19 years, as ridiculous and a waste of money. Reports in parts of the US media say Ghani wanted to delay the intra-Afghan talks until the election as he expected a more favourable US policy towards Afghanistan by Joe Biden, which could mean maintaining some military presence to sustain the Afghan government in power. However, Biden would keep US interests supreme while making a reviewing of the Afghan policy; and whatever his administration decides may not be of much help to Ghani.

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

Intra-Afghan peace talks: Is the hardest part yet to come?