Daunting path to Afghan peace By Maleeha Lodhi

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IT was never going to be simple or easy. But the impediments encountered at every step of the way to launch intra-Afghan talks have been far more challenging than expected. This has not only delayed a process that was planned to begin on March 10 under the Feb 29 Doha agreement between the US and the Afghan Taliban. It has also underlined the long and grinding road that lies ahead for the parties to reach any semblance of agreement on the country’s future once negotiations do begin.

The prisoner exchange between Kabul and the Taliban continues to be the immediate obstacle. The Taliban have insisted that before intra-Afghan talks can begin what was agreed by the Doha accord should first be implemented — the commitment by the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. After freeing the detainees in several tranches, a prolonged impasse on releasing the remaining 400 has followed, with President Ashraf Ghani claiming that they were dangerous militants who he was averse to release. However, under immense pressure from the Americans Ghani was urged to call a Loya Jirga to find a political cover and face-saver for the prisoner release.

Once the Jirga cleared the way for the release by its Aug 8 declaration, the Taliban signalled readiness for talks to begin as soon as Aug 10. That is what they conveyed to US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Preparations got into swing to convene the inaugural meeting in Doha. Discussion also took place about whether that meeting should be held virtually or in person on Aug 16 for which the Qataris wanted Khalilzad’s attendance. Tentative information about a Doha meeting was conveyed to many countries including Pakistan, the plan being to invite 22 states, mostly virtually.

But then Kabul again demurred despite the fact that Ghani signed an order for the release following the Jirga’s decision. His justification for refusing to free the remaining 320 Taliban prisoners was the same — they would pose an ‘international’ security threat and confront Western countries with a “new wave of drugs”. Rejecting this argument, the Taliban in a statement on Aug 15, declared that the accusations against these detainees were unfounded and merely an attempt by Kabul to create hurdles in the peace process and stoke international concerns.

The latest impasse has further vitiated the environment for the peace talks. But it has also fuelled some media speculation that the Afghan government may be dragging its feet and deliberately delaying the talks until the US presidential election, just over two months away now. The aim may be to try, if Joe Biden wins, to persuade his administration to change course or to at least slow down the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. If true, this represents a grievously mistaken assumption. Apart from banking on an uncertain electoral outcome it also presupposes that Biden would reverse course on a process well underway, especially with Washington’s recent announcement that by election time American troops would go down to less than 5,000 in Afghanistan. This suggests that any delay-till-elections tactic would leave the Ghani government in an even weaker position than it is in now.

US officials can be expected to mount renewed pressure on Ghani to relent even as the Afghan president continues to stir up concerns among European countries about the release of so-called hardcore Taliban fighters. Washington has already made it evident that it wants to speedily get intra-Afghan talks going given President Trump’s desire to bring the bulk of US troops home by the November election and deliver on his previous campaign promise.

Developments over the past several months, since the Doha agreement, have magnified the challenges intra-Afghan talks will face considering the obstacles that have been encountered to initiate them. Even on who the Taliban say they are prepared to negotiate with is a source of contention. On several occasions the Taliban have said they will not negotiate with the Kabul government but with the wide spectrum of ‘all parties to the conflict’. It reiterated recently that “The Islamic Emirate does not recognise the Kabul administration as a government but views it as [a] Western imported structure. We only accept negotiations that were described in the historic Doha agreement … that cover all parties to the Afghan conflict”.

On the two big agenda items in future negotiations — a framework agreement and a ‘comprehensive and permanent ceasefire’ — the positions of the two parties are as far apart as they can be. So also, is mutual mistrust. The Afghan government has already set a number of pre-negotiations ‘redlines’ for the talks. They include the demand for a ‘humanitarian’ ceasefire during or before the talks, no compromise on the democratic and human rights ‘gains’ made in the past decades, and ‘respect’ for the Republic’s constitution. The Taliban can be expected to push back against many of these redlines.

On a ceasefire, the Taliban’s preference seems clear — that agreement on a permanent ceasefire should follow and not precede the successful conclusion of negotiations on the political road map and power sharing. Only recently Taliban representatives apparently told UNAMA officials that the historical experience of similar negotiations elsewhere indicate that a ceasefire comes after and not before agreement on other substantive issues.

Reaching a framework agreement or a political settlement will pose an even greater challenge. Consensus will not be easy to evolve on vexed issues such as provisional power sharing, the Afghan constitution and human rights, and equally contentious matters relating to demobilisation of Taliban forces and their reintegration. It is hard to envision any middle ground, for example, between the Afghan government’s position to preserve the republican character of the constitution and the Taliban’s insistence on declaring Afghanistan an Emirate or Sharia state.

Therefore, if talks commence in coming weeks the peace process is expected to be long and tough with little guarantee of a successful conclusion if the parties stick to their well-known positions. Win­n­­ing the peace in Afghanistan remains a daunting challenge even though the stakes will be much hi­­gher for all parties in post-America Afghanistan.