Afghanistan

Intra-Afghan peace dialogue: A reluctant handshake

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Members of The Taliban delegation at the opening session of the peace talks, in Doha, Qatar, on September 12. Photo: AFP

The Doha peace talks indicate that the U.S. and the international community have reconciled themselves to the resurgence of the Taliban but many in the Afghan government remain sceptical of any positive outcome.

It was the first time that the Taliban leadership agreed to have prolonged face-to-face meetings with top representatives of the government in Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan peace dialogue, brokered by the United States, began on September 12 in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

The talks were supposed to be held in March but differences over prisoner exchanges and other issues cropped up. They finally began after the U.S. agreed to release six Taliban prisoners accused of killing American and French soldiers. The prisoners were released on September 11 and flown to Doha in a chartered plane. Thousands of Taliban prisoners have been released in the last six months.

Among the issues discussed in Doha were ways to arrive at a permanent ceasefire, safeguarding the rights of women and minorities, and the disarming of tens of thousands of fighters belonging to the Taliban and private militias, many of them aligned with the government. The other important issues were those regarding power sharing and making changes to the Afghan Constitution. Under a February deal signed with the U.S., the Taliban promised not to have ties with “terror” outfits or allow Afghan territory to be used for attacks against American targets.

The Afghan government was represented by Abdullah Abdullah, who was the de facto Prime Minister in the last government and has now been designated leader of the High Council of National Reconciliation. Hamid Karzai, former President, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin party, refused to participate in the talks.

The chief negotiator on the Taliban side was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Haqqani, a close associate of the founder of the movement, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Haqqani is an Islamic scholar and has written books on Islamic jurisprudence. Another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was also present at the opening ceremony of the talks.

Speaking at the ceremony, Abdullah Abdullah said that there would never “be any winners or losers” in the ongoing conflict and added that “there will be no losers if the conflict is resolved politically and peacefully”. Baradar, on his part, said that the Taliban would participate in the talks with “full sincerity” and expressed his wish that the talks lead “to an Afghanistan that is independent, sovereign, united, developed and free”.

Top diplomats from several countries, including the U.S., Pakistan, China and India, attended the ceremony. With the Donald Trump administration in the U.S. determined to withdraw most of its remaining military forces from Afghanistan before the U.S. presidential election in November, the endgame in the long-drawn-out Afghan war seems to have finally begun in earnest. Proper implementation of the agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban earlier this year will bring down the curtains on a war that has lasted nearly 19 years and devastated the country. The Pentagon of the U.S. has said that the country’s troop levels in Afghanistan would drop to 4,500 in November. Earlier this year, the Taliban agreed to the timetable of American troop withdrawal.

Resurgent Taliban

The U.S. and most of the international community have reconciled themselves to the fact that a resurgent Taliban is all set to make a comeback even if the latest peace deal unravels. Both the Americans and the Taliban continue to target each other, although the scale of the fighting has reduced.

A few days before the Doha talks, there was yet another attempt on the life of Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, an outspoken critic of the Taliban. Saleh escaped but 10 people, including innocent bystanders, were killed. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban continues to insist that the U.S. withdraw from all its military bases eventually. The U.S. has promised to withdraw from five military bases before the year end. By the middle of 2021, all foreign forces are supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan. President Donald Trump is facing resistance from his own party over the plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. Congresswoman Liz Cheney recently said that withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan “won’t end the war—it will just let the terrorists win”. Influential sections of the U.S. political and security establishments are still loath to pull out of Afghanistan completely despite the country having spent more than $86 billion just to support the Afghan security forces. The U.S. spent another $4 billion this year.

Although the Taliban leadership now claims to be more inclusive than when it was in power in Kabul two decades ago, it is still sticking to its antiquated stance on many emotive issues, including equal rights for women and the treatment of all sects and religions as equal. The Taliban negotiators want Afghans to adhere to the purist Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. Currently, the Afghan state adheres to the Shia-influenced Ja’fari school of thought.

Many leading figures in the government in Kabul believe that the Talban is not really serious about peace and only wants the talks to prolong indefinitely until the Americans pack up and leave. Initially, the Afghan government insisted that it would start talks with the Taliban only after the group agreed to a ceasefire. The Afghan government’s stance gives the impression that it was pushed to the negotiating table by the U.S.

Indian position

India has had to shed its reluctance to recognise the fact that it has to deal with the Taliban sooner rather than later. The Trump administration saw to it that India was also invited to the Doha meeting, despite reports of Pakistani objections. The Trump administration supported the Indian government’s position that it is a legitimate stakeholder in the Afghan peace process.

The late Richard Holbrooke, who was former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed that the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Kashmir were linked, a view shared by many in the American political establishment.

Several insurgent groups active in the Kashmir Valley, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, were trained in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power in Kabul. Holbrooke believed that a peaceful solution of the Afghan problem would have a positive impact on the volatile situation in Kashmir. India objected to the hyphenation of the Afghan issue with that of Kashmir at the time and the Obama administration quietly put the issue on the back burner. Until recently, the current Indian government was adamant in its position that it would not have any contact, formal or otherwise, with the Taliban.

However, at the Doha meet, India was represented by a high-level delegation. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, addressing the inaugural session by video, called for a ceasefire in Afghanistan between the two warring sides. Even as the talks were going on there was fighting in many parts of Afghanistan, with the Afghan army and police force suffering heavy casualties.

Jaishankar stressed the fact that India-Afghanistan relations remained “strong and unshaken” and pointed out that the two countries “have been good neighbours”. India had invested more than $2 billion in infrastructural projects in the country and was a strong backer of the government in Kabul and the continued U.S. military presence there. Jaishankar also made it clear that India expected that “the soil of Afghanistan will never be used for any anti-Indian activities”. He also emphasised that the peace process should “be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled”.

The Haqqani group, a key component of the Afghan Taliban, is viewed as being anti-Indian and also having close connections with the Pakistani security establishment. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the group, is the official deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban.

At the same time, India seems to be preparing for the emerging scenario in Afghanistan when a government not too friendly to New Delhi could be in power in Kabul. In the last week of September, the Indian government played host to the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. He was a key player in the Northern Alliance, supported by a motley group of countries including Russia, Iran and India, that fought against the Taliban until 2001. The Northern Alliance, led by the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Masood, had the tacit backing of the U.S. and major Western powers.

Dostum, who was Vice-President during the first term of President Ashraf Ghani, is no longer an important factor in Afghan politics. His Uzbek support base has been splintered and his history of opportunism has left him with few allies. While serving as Vice-President, he fled the country to escape being tried on charges of rape and human rights abuses. He was allowed to return to Afghanistan two years ago by the President.

Dostum, a top military general in the Afghan army during the Afghan jehad the 1980s that was backed by the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency, betrayed President Najibullah and facilitated his capture and hanging by the brutal warlords who preceded the Taliban. Dostum’s visit to New Delhi could signal a move to resurrect the Northern Alliance in a different form, in case the necessity arises again. Following the meeting with Dostum, Jaishankar once again tweeted that India remains “fully committed” to the “Afghan-led” peace process.

Pakistan’s view

In his opening remarks at the Doha conference, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned against meddling by outsiders in Afghan affairs during the negotiations. “Afghans alone must be masters of their destiny without outside influence or interference. Constant vigilance will be required to guard against their machinations,” he said via videoconferencing. Pakistan was always in favour of a political solution, he said, adding that that he was “gratified that our perspective is now widely shared across the international community”.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, cautioned against a hasty international withdrawal from Afghanistan and setting unrealistic timelines for a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

He said that it was the “courage and flexibility” shown by the Kabul government and the Taliban that had brought both sides to the negotiating table. Imran Khan said the Doha talks could turn out “to be even more difficult, requiring patience and compromise from all sides”.

Without naming any specific country, Imran Khan warned against “regional spoilers” who wanted to exploit the instability in the region. “Through decades of conflict, Pakistan has dealt with the responsibility of taking care of more than four million Afghan refugees. Guns and drugs have flown into our country. The wars have disrupted our economic trajectory and radicalised fringes of our own society,” he said. He conceded that “Pakistan will not know real peace until our Afghan brothers and sisters are at peace”.

The Trump administration thanked Pakistan for the role it played in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. Abdullah Abdullah, who was in Pakistan in late September, thanked that country’s government for the role it had played so far in the Afghan peace process. He met with Pakistan’s top leadership “to exchange views on Afghanistan’s peace and bilateral relations”.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Jawad Zarif, told CNN in an interview that there were “many flaws” in the Doha peace process. “I believe that the U.S. engaged in all-out efforts to simply get out of Afghanistan, which is good, but it should not be at the expense of the people of Afghanistan and at the expense of the democratic process in Afghanistan, at the expense of the achievements of the international community and the Afghan people over the last 20 years,” Zarif said.

Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war when the Taliban was in power in Kabul. Zarif said Iran was closely observing the Doha process. He observed that “the talks currently are in a stalemate” but Iran, he added, would do its best to help the process despite the damage caused by the U.S. to the peace process.

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