Uncertainty clouds Afghan talks By Maleeha Lodhi

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WITH the US presidential election barely four months away, top American officials have been engaged in another round of shuttle diplomacy to get intra-Afghan talks off the ground. Recent visits to Kabul, Islamabad and Doha by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and a video conversation between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban chief negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar last month all aimed at speeding up the peace process.

President Donald Trump seems determined to pull out the bulk of US troops from Afghanistan ahead of the November polls and portray this as fulfilment of his pledge and an ‘achievement’, especially when he has little to claim by way of any foreign policy success. The withdrawal of US forces as envisaged under the Feb 29 US-Taliban agreement is proceeding ahead of schedule. The coronavirus pandemic may be a compelling reason to expedite the pullout.

The prospect of commencing intra-Afghan talks is still clouded in uncertainty despite the US aim to have them convened later this month. The principal hurdle is the persisting stalemate on the issue of prisoners. Under the Doha deal the Afghan government was committed to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. So far just over 4,400 prisoners have been freed by Kabul and around 660 by the Taliban in the swap. From the outset the Taliban’s condition to begin intra-Afghan talks was the release of all 5,000 prisoners. US officials have tried to persuade them to start the talks and let the rest of the prisoner release happen in due course. But the Taliban have not agreed.

Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani has continued to drag his feet on releasing the prisoners arguing that many of them are dangerous militants or guilty of serious human rights abuses. The Taliban regard this as just a pretext to delay the talks. It is entirely possible that Kabul is prevaricating as this may be the last source of leverage that President Ghani enjoys ahead of the talks, which he is reluctant to give up at this point. Instead, he has offered different proposals on the issue but the Taliban have rejected any piecemeal prisoner release. This remains the main impediment in the process that was expected to begin in March, days after the Doha agreement, but it continues to hang in the balance.

The uptick in violence in Afghanistan is also vitiating the atmosphere for dialogue. It is, however, not unusual for combatant parties in such a situation to sustain or escalate attacks to strengthen their negotiating position ahead of talks. Reduction of violence and a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” are a top agenda item in intra-Afghan negotiations according to part four of the Doha Agreement. It is, therefore, unlikely that before formal negotiations begin either of the two parties will refrain from mounting military pressure on the other.

Nevertheless, any spectacular attack could set back peace efforts. Pompeo’s tweet after his conversation with Mullah Baradar, which said that he warned him against attacks on American personnel, reflected Washington’s concern for its troops’ security but it also fuelled the impression that there is implicit acceptance that some fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban will continue despite US calls for a reduction in violence.

If the impasse over the prisoners issue is overcome the Taliban are committed to joining intra-Afghan talks soon after. Agreement will then have to be forged on issues such as venue and who will be the mediator for the talks at least in the beginning. The inaugural meeting to kick off the talks is expected to be in Doha, but thereafter there are several proposals on where subsequent rounds could be. They include Doha or shifting to Oslo, Germany or Uzbekistan. Ghani has also proposed that each subsequent round should be held in a different location.

Once talks begin, the US would be obliged under the Doha Agreement to begin an administrative review of sanctions and the rewards list against members of the Taliban. It is also committed to start consultations with other UN Security Council members to delist Taliban members from the Council’s sanctions list.

Of course, the thorniest issues lie ahead in complex intra-Afghan negotiations once they are launched. Achieving a lasting ceasefire by agreeing on its scope and terms and setting up a mechanism for its enforcement will pose a major challenge. How “joint implementation mechanisms” mentioned in the Doha deal would be evolved seems particularly problematic. For example, would this mean that areas under Taliban control would be ‘legally’ accepted by Kabul when such an arrangement is implemented?

An even more formidable challenge in direct talks will be to reach agreement on a political settlement. The joint declaration between the US and Afghan government, announced along with the Doha Agreement in February, envisages a ‘framework agreement’ to emerge from intra-Afghan talks. This would involve settling contentious issues of provisional power sharing, constitution and human rights, and equally vexed matters relating to demobilisation of Taliban forces and their reintegration. In recent virtual meetings with regional and international partners, President Ghani has sought support for his position that the end state should be a republic in an effort to pre-empt the Taliban’s expected demand for Afghanistan to be declared a Sharia state or emirate.

Then there is the question of whether an interim government would be needed to transition to the ‘new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government’, which is ambiguously mentioned in the Doha accord and is to be determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue. President Ghani has repeatedly ruled out any interim or provisional government arguing that this is contrary to the constitution. But the question is whether the Taliban will accept power sharing without a new political arrangement first being installed.

A long and difficult path lies ahead to secure a negotiated end to the Afghan war. What seems certain is President Trump’s intent to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan regardless of whether the intra-Afghan talks make progress or yield an outcome. Indications that he may want a speedier withdrawal if talks are just initiated suggests that the intra-Afghan dialogue is seen as Washington’s exit door out of Afghanistan. The implications of this for Pakistan should not be lost on Islamabad.