Fresh hope, but also hurdles

While an end to the deadlock in the Afghan peace process is in sight, Rahimullah Yusufzai warns that majorobstacles still lie ahead

Following Taliban willingness to reduce attacks in Afghanistan as demanded by the United States, there are renewed hopes that the stalemate in their long peace talks will be broken, leading to the signing of the much-anticipated deal.

The Taliban leaders appear more hopeful than the Americans as they expect the peace deal to be signed before the end of January. The US, however, will have to take into consideration the political situation at home as President Donald Trump’s capacity to take major decisions could be temporarily hampered by his impeachment trial, although it is unlikely to succeed.

Besides, the US would have to bring in the beleaguered Afghan government, which is worried for its future should the US-led foreign forces withdraw as a result of the deal with the Taliban. Not surprisingly, President Ashraf Ghani’s government is insisting on a permanent ceasefire as a pre-condition for entering into peace talks with the Taliban.

But the militant movementhas refused to recognise the Afghan government, deeming it a US ‘puppet’. No direct peace talks have yet taken place between the Taliban and Kabul, though at least three Afghan government officials participated in the last intra-Afghan dialogue, held in July 2019 in Qatar.

The Taliban want Afghan government officials to attend such intra-Afghan meetings in their personal capacity, like other Afghan delegates, instead of representing Kabul. Despite US pressure and Pakistan’s advice, the group has yet to change this policy. This is, therefore, still one of the major hurdles in moving the peace process forward.

After the Taliban announced a reduction in attacks by their fighters to create the right conditions for the peace process, the ‘pause’ in the negotiations ended, with top Taliban negotiators recently meeting their counterparts from the US in Doha, apparently to discuss the next steps required for signing the peace agreement. Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani led his three-member delegation in the apparently crucial meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special Representativefor Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Gen Scott Miller, the US-NATO military commander in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has consistently declined to hold direct talks with the Afghan government

The ‘pause’ was supposed to enable the two sides to hold consultations with their respective leaderships, but it grew longer than anticipated and caused concern that the peace talks were deadlocked.

One reason was the Taliban’s efforts to develop a consensus in the group’s ranks on the issue of reducing violence before making a commitment with the US about it. The logistics of undertaking the consultation also posed problems, as the members of the Taliban Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council) and the influential military commanders are located in different countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Qatar. Seeking their opinion and consent therefore took time. The US too had to take the Afghan government, angry at being left out of the peace talks at the Taliban’s demand, into its confidence.

The nine rounds of talks, spread over more than a year in 2018-2019, had made real progress and a peace deal had almost been reached when President Trump, true to his unpredictable nature, called off the negotiations on September 8, 2019, on the basis of unconvincing reasons. The resumption of peace talks on December 7 in Doha renewed hopes that both the Taliban and the Americans had realised that dialogue rather than war offered the best solution to ending the long Afghan conflict.

While the Taliban insisted that the resumed peace talks ought to focus on deciding the date and venue of the signing of the peace agreement, the US maintained that the negotiations should also tackle the issue of a reduction in violence that could lead to intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.

Although the Taliban hasn’t refused intra-Afghan dialogue, it has consistently declined to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. Germany and China, among other countries, have offered to host intra-Afghan meetings, which are supposed to start days after the Taliban-US peace agreement is signed.

FREED: Anas Haqqani was released by the Afghan govt as part of a prisoner swap
FREED: Anas Haqqani was released by the Afghan govt as part of a prisoner swap

It is obvious the Taliban wants to maintain military pressure on the Afghan government while taking part in the intra-Afghan meetings to get its terms accepted. This is the reason the group is reluctant to announce a permanent ceasefire with the Afghan government. Rather, the major stakeholders see the peace process moving in bits and pieces, due to the huge trust deficit between them.

When talks resumed in Doha with the US delegation, the Taliban’s negotiating team included Anas Haqqani, youngest brother of the Haqqani network head, and the Taliban movement’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Although sentenced to death by a court in Kabul, Anas Haqqani was released late last year by the Afghan government after five years in captivity, along with two other important Taliban figures, in exchange for ten Afghan soldiers and two Western hostages, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, who were kidnapped over three years ago from outside the American University in Kabul. The Taliban had named the young Anas Haqqani as a member of their negotiating team in a bid to save his life and secure his release. The prisoner swap, which benefited both sides, was a timely move to create the right conditions for the resumption of the peace talks.

Progress in the peace talks may have been painfully slow, but it is still an achievement because it was almost unthinkable that the US and Taliban would eventually negotiate to reach a political settlement. Also, even though the proposed Kabul-Taliban talks could turn out to be even more challenging, progress could be made if enough pressure is applied by the Afghan people, global and regional powers and other stakeholders in the Afghan government, its political opponents and the Taliban to give peace a chance.

The eventual winner of the September 28 Afghan presidential election has still not been announced, even though President Ashraf Ghani was in the lead over his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah –who holds the office of Chief Executive in their so-called National Unity Government – when Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission finally made public the preliminary result after several missed deadlines.

The historically low turnout, allegations of rigging and premature claims of victory by both Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah compounded the situation, and the crisis isn’t yet over as the latter has contested the preliminary result and termed the election fraudulent.

Dr Abdullah’s refusal to accept the outcome of the polls could further fuel the ethnic divide in Afghanistan. Ghani is largely backed by his fellow Pashtuns, who constitute almost half of Afghanistan’s population, while Abdullah has drawn greater support from Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Despite its reluctance the US may be forced once again to intervene, as it did in the 2014 presidential election to avert a major crisis in the country. The US appears unhappy with the low turnout and the insignificant number of votes obtained by Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah. Therefore, it could once again strive to seek formation of a government of national unity to broaden its base and bring together all the anti-Taliban forces,in order to negotiate peace with the Taliban on better terms.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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