WITH the last hitch removed, the elusive intra-Afghan dialogue is now likely to take place next week to discuss the country’s political future that could bring an end to the two-decade-long American war in Afghanistan. It will be the most critical phase of the Afghan peace process with the representatives of the Kabul government for the first time sitting face to face with the Taliban leadership.
President Ashraf Ghani last week passed an order to release the remaining batch of 400 Afghan Taliban prisoners thus clearing the final hurdle for the start of the negotiations between the two sides. The Feb 29 peace accord between the Taliban and the United States had pledged to release 5,000 insurgent prisoners.
While releasing most of the detainees, the government in Kabul was reluctant to free what it described as hardcore fighters; 156 of these prisoners had been sentenced to death. The president’s consent came after a consultative assembly or Loya Jirga, which met last week, gave its approval. There was also American pressure behind the move. It’s apparent that the Trump administration does not want any delay in its plan to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.
In fact, the drawdown of US troops had started soon after the signing of the peace deal between the US and the Taliban. The number of American troops has now dropped to approximately 8,600 from about 13,000 and five bases have been closed in Afghanistan.
In a situation where two sides have long been locked in war, it’s never easy to agree to a political transition.
The US secretary of defence last week said another 3,600 soldiers would be brought home by November leaving less than 5,000 in Afghanistan. But the complete withdrawal of US troops is linked to an intra-Afghan agreement on a future political set-up.
Indeed, the stakes are high for both sides of the divide. While an agreement would raise the prospects for peace, a breakdown in talks could deepen the civil war. It’s not just about a power-sharing arrangement, it is also about a future political system in the country and protection of fundamental rights of all sections of the population. The outcome of the talks would largely depend on whether or not the Taliban are willing to accept a pluralistic political order.
Curiously, the Taliban recently announced some changes in their negotiating team bringing in Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, the late supreme leader of the militia. He had earlier been appointed to the pivotal post of chief of the Taliban’s military operations. His rise in the Taliban hierarchy is seen as significant given his reputation as a hardliner.
The new Taliban team also includes Anas Haqqani the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the insurgent group. The Kabul government last year in exchange for two American and one Australian nationals held by the Taliban, released the younger Haqqani who was in a death cell in a Kabul prison.
Another significant addition to the team is the former chief justice in the ousted Taliban regime. Led by Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the rest are the same representatives who were there in the peace talks with the US. According to some analysts, the changes in the Taliban negotiating team have made it more representative of the group’s political and military leadership.
On the other side, while former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah would direct the peace negotiations with the Taliban, the Afghan team in the talks would reportedly be led by Masoom Stanekzai, a former head of the Afghan intelligence agency NDS. He was forced to resign in 2019, following an extrajudicial killing of four Afghan civilians during a night raid carried out by the agency personnel in Jalalabad.
Stanekzai had earlier served as secretary of the High Peace Council, which was set up by the Afghan government to talk to the Taliban in the past. He would be reporting to and take direction from a Council headed by Dr Abdullah.
In a situation where two sides have long been locked in war, it’s never easy to negotiate peace and agree to a political transition. More importantly, the talks will be taking place in an atmosphere of heightened hostilities. Since the signing of the peace accord with the US earlier this year, the Taliban have intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces in order to expand the areas under their influence. It also seems a part of Taliban strategy to gain advantage at the negotiating table.
For negotiations to move forward, it will be imperative for the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and lower the level of hostilities. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will show the same degree of pragmatism as their leaders had done during peace negotiations with the US. The Eid ceasefire certainly helped create better conditions for negotiations. But continued violence could make it extremely difficult for the talks to progress.
For many Afghans, any prospect of the Taliban even sharing power is disconcerting. Notwithstanding their solemn pledges, the Taliban have maintained a deliberate ambiguity about their political agenda, adding to the sense of confusion. There were some indications that the conservative Islamist movement would be willing to work within a pluralistic political system. Yet, there has not been any clarity on whether or not the group would be willing to work within a democratic political and constitutional set-up.
Another cause of concern is the protection of women’s rights to education and work. Although the Taliban leaders said they acknowledged women’s rights and would not oppose female education, this assurance has not helped remove concerns.
Surely, the Taliban political leadership appears more moderate and flexible in its view while talking about a pluralistic and inclusive political system. However, mere words are not enough. Indeed, the latest development clearing the way for intra-Afghan talks is very positive. But both sides will now have to show seriousness in finding a political solution to the festering Afghan conflict.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020