Despite desire for an inclusive and sustainable peace in Afghanistan, chances remain slim

The Intra-Afghan Talks which commenced in Doha, Qatar on 12 September mark the first direct dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Over six months have gone by since the US-Taliban agreement was signed in the Qatari capital. It was supposed to be followed by the Intra-Afghan negotiations in March. Political disagreements, debates, and doubts over the release of brutal Taliban terrorists, and continued Taliban terror attacks on Afghan government forces have encumbered an already problematic process.

The present peace process is witnessing a phased US withdrawal of forces, Taliban assurances about terrorism and prisoner releases as part of a confidence building measure to facilitate Intra-Afghan talks.

Despite the disagreements there is a sense that significant sections of both the political dispensation and the Taliban have a genuine desire for peace. A ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ with neither able to succeed militarily nor effortlessly sustain the current posture has wormed into the cognitive of the warring sides. While the Americans and their NATO partners have been involved in the conflict for two decades, for Afghans the war has been going on for twice as long.

That the desire for peace has been genuine can be appraised by the continuity of the process even in the coronavirus pandemic environment. In the initial phases, talks were doggedly held via Skype. There appears to be a broad political consensus towards the Doha talks with the Taliban. The formation of a High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) negotiating team was a significant step despite the dispute between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the results of the presidential elections.

The incredible grit of the government negotiating team — many of whom have been in the crosshairs of the Taliban at some point — in sitting across them is also testament to the desire for the bloodshed to end.

The question is, even after recognising the futility of continued escalation can the Taliban be accepted as a legitimate negotiating partner?

The exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 Afghan forces was made prerequisite in the February 2020 Doha agreement, without any ceasefire guarantees, or that these former inmates wouldn’t return to the battlefield. Further, the Taliban handed the government the list of 5,000 names and was insistent that only those fighters named should be released. Because the release of the last batch of 400 controversial prisoners was an unpopular step Ashraf Ghani’s government convened a consultative Loya Jirga offering the members a stark choice between accepting the Taliban demand of releasing the prisoners or facing continued war.

Under these circumstances, the Jirga, which met from 7 to 9 August, agreed to the release of these inmates without being provided any details. The Taliban that had earlier issued a statement that the Jirga itself was a not legitimate, accepted its “good” outcome. Many believe that the Jirga provided Ghani with a political cover for the release of the prisoners.

Notwithstanding the excitement surrounding the peace talks, negotiating with the Taliban is already proving to be specious. While Kabul’s HCNR indicated early on that it is ready to start direct negotiations, the Taliban kept delaying its assent to participation in talks. It was only on 10 September that the group announced that while it would attend the inauguration ceremony of the Intra-Afghan talks in Qatar on 12 September, its delegation would now be led by hard-line cleric Mullah Abdul Hakim, and not by Mullah Baradar, who was instrumental in the February US-Taliban deal.

Chief Justice of the Taliban, Hakim, is a religious scholar from Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Indicative of assertive posturing, the decision is in line with its continuous use of violence to gain leverage over talks. The Taliban negating team includes Anas Haqqani, brother of current Haqqani clan leader and deputy Taliban chief Serajuddin Haqqani. The team also includes former Guantanamo prisoners.

The Taliban has not relented on the use of violence to secure an upper hand in negotiations. Through the past week, leading up to the Doha meeting, several Taliban attacks over two dozen provinces lead to the death of 49 civilians. Despite some ambiguity about the official launch of its annual Spring Offensive this year, due to the peace process and rising coronavirus cases amongst its ranks, the intervening period witnessed a discernible upsurge in violence.

The Taliban’s ties with Pakistan-based terror groups and with the Al-Qaeda continue.

As part of the prisoner exchange deal Taliban secured the release of the wife of Asim Umar, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) who was killed in October last year. More than a quarter of the 5,000 prisoners released are from the Taliban strongholds of southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Another problem that will arise from dealing with an insurgent group like the Taliban is the assumption that it is a homogeneous entity and that any agreement produced in the peace process be acceptable to all Taliban rank and file. The attitudes of regional terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which are aligned to the Taliban and use Afghan territory as sanctuaries, to the peace process is sure to be disruptive. Rival groups may try to entice dissenting Taliban fighters.

According to UN estimates 6,000 to 6,500 Pakistani terrorists are operating from bases in in the Kunar and Nangarhar. According to the Afghan NDS the Taliban have recruited many students from Pakistani seminaries after their closure due to COVID-19.

For India, the expansive influence that Pakistan has over the Taliban is of immense concern. In late August, a Taliban delegation led by the chief negotiator of the February deal with the US, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was briefed by Pakistan’s foreign minister and head of its Inter-Services Intelligence, in Islamabad, which is acutely aware that “an Islamist government… will be more friendly towards Pakistan than it would be towards India.”

Pakistan would refrain from criticism of any future Taliban-dominated establishment if it fails to action against regional terror groups that are operating on Afghan soil in order to appease it.

The problem with the entire peace process is that, in order for it to be a ‘success’ it is structured to reach a goal in which the Taliban will ultimately have an overwhelming presence. President Donald Trump’s interest is in ending the war in Afghanistan as his signature accomplishment to bolster his reelection bid notwithstanding the setback to democratic governance in that country.

The challenge for Kabul would be to remain clear about its interests and prospects in any future government. The Taliban is not a force that is popular with the vast majority of Afghans. A peace that is designed only to achieve an end in itself, without respecting the democratic process, or the sentiments of Afghans or the sacrifices of thousands of security personnel will most certainly plunge Afghanistan back to days of a fanatical regime.

The issues that need to be addressed in the intra-Afghan negotiations include, although they are not limited to ceasefire, power sharing arrangements, questions on whether the Constitution will be amended, the rights of women and minorities like the Shia Hazara. But standing above all other issues, is the crucial deliberation over Afghanistan’s fate as an Islamic Republic, which it has been since the American intervention in 2001 or its reversion to an Islamic Emirate which is what the Taliban desires.

The long-term implications of the pandemic on the already challenging peace process is also uncertain. The final stage of the peace process which has begun in Doha could quite easily collapse if the Taliban exposes it to intransigence and continued violence. It is difficult to imagine that the Taliban would relent its vision of an “Islamic Emirate” for which it has been fighting a deadly insurgency. How this corresponds with Kabul’s prerogative of retaining the ‘democratic’ system and as much of the current Constitution as is possible is indeed a paradox.




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