Vital steps on the road to peace

A week-long truce is raising hopes for a resolution to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan. But, argues Rahimullah Yusufzai, compromise will be the key to lasting stability

The Taliban and the United States of America are expected to sign a landmark peace agreement in Qatar on February 29, after more than a year of difficult negotiations.

For the US, signing the deal is conditional upon a reduction in violence in Afghanistan, as promised by the Taliban. And a marked decrease was observed as a week-long break in violence, from February 22-28, began across the country. This limited armistice is the longest ever in a war that started in October 2011, when US forces invaded Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to avenge the al-Qaeda-sponsored 9/11 attacks.

The only other time the Taliban declared a ceasefire during the 18-year-long conflict was for the three-day Eid-ul-Fitr festival in 2018. This was not violated by Taliban fighters, and no violation has yet been reported during the current truce. The US insisted on this condition as it wanted to see if the Rahbari Shura, the group’s highest decision-making body, and the Qatar-based Taliban Political Commission, which are holding the peace negotiations, have the power to enforce a ceasefire. The beleaguered Afghan government initially demanded a permanent ceasefire before the intra-Afghan talks, but it stepped back and agreed to the temporary reduction in violence after persuasion by the US.

All this seemed unimaginable in 2018 when the Taliban and the US,following some tentative moves, decided to engage in direct talks by keeping the Afghan government out of the process. This was an old Taliban demand, as the militant group considered the US the main party to the Afghan conflict and refused to either recognise or talk to the government of President Hamid Karzai and then that of President Ashraf Ghani.

The beleaguered Afghan government initially demanded a permanent ceasefire

The on-again, off-again peace talks, mostly held in Doha, Qatar, have already been derailed once.On September 8 last year President Donald Trump ended the process on the pretext that there had been a rise in Taliban violence that claimed many lives, including that of an American soldier. However, talks resumed after three months as all sides in the conflict concluded that a political settlement through negotiations was the most logical option, owing to the impossibility of a military victory. This realisation helped make the peace talks the most serious and sustained to-date.

Pakistan played a role in restarting the talks by hosting a meeting late last year in Islamabad between Taliban deputy leader and chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation. However, Pakistan must tread carefully, particularly during the upcoming intra-Afghan peace talks, due to the high level of mistrust between it and the Afghans who are part of the present political dispensation.

Although details of the Taliban-US peace agreement have not yet been disclosed, there are indications that it will outline the steps to be taken by the three main stakeholders – the Taliban, the US and Afghanistan – as the process moves forward. The main element of the deal is the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces, in return for security guarantees by the Taliban that they will not allow the use of Afghan soil under their control as a base for attacks against the US, its allies and other countries. There has been much wrangling over the timetable for US forces’ withdrawal, as the Taliban want a quick exit while Washington argues it needs more time to complete the pullout. There are unconfirmed reports that the US could withdraw its 13,000 troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, including 5,000 to be pulled out even earlier.

Once the peace agreement is signed, its implementation will apparently start with an exchange of prisoners. An expected 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be freed in exchange for 1,000 men, mostly Afghan security forces personnel, presently in Taliban custody. Taliban spokesmen have said about 11,000 of their members are being held by the Afghan and US governments.

While the Taliban leadership has committed to take part in the intra-Afghan dialogue, it insists there is no mention in the agreement of holding direct talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban position has always been that all Afghans, including officials of the Afghan government, could take part in the intra-Afghan meetings in their personal capacity. The US and Afghan governments, on the other hand, want direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul, as the latter has the authority to sign and implement any accord reached in the intra-Afghan meetings. The first such meeting is expected to take place in Germany, which has offered to act as host, as it did for the 2001 Bonn conference, in which decisions about Afghanistan in the post-Taliban period – including the new government headed by Hamid Karzai – were taken. China and certain other countries had also offered to host the meetings, but Beijing cannot do so now that it is trying to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

The intra-Afghan dialogue, in which decisions about Afghanistan’s future are supposed to be taken, is going to be the most complicated and challenging part of the peace process. Already, the dispute over the outcome of September’s presidential election has created a major political crisis and could negatively impact the dialogue as Dr Abdullah, declared the runner-up by Afghanistan’s controversial Independent Election Commission five months after the polls, has refused to accept the victory of Ashraf Ghani. Abdullah announced the formation of a parallel government and appointed at least three governors of provinces located in his strongholds in northern Afghanistan. He also issued orders barring the Election Commission officials from leaving Afghanistan, after accusing them of ‘treason’ by manipulating the result in favour of Ghani.

Serious consequences could arise from the confrontation. Until now the two sides have not held any talks to resolve the dispute, nor has any mediator come forward to reconcile them. All eyes will now be on the US, apparently uninterested, vis-à-vis this jostling for power in Afghanistan, to intervene in the matter as it did in 2014, when Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah were made to work together in a national unity government, having bitterly contested the result of the presidential poll.

The US seems to have little appetite for any deep involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs at a time when Trump is keen to bring his troops home and reduce American spending in the war-ravaged country. However, America may opt to play a role in reconciling the two political rivals in order to save the peace process.

The tussle for power in Kabul could undermine Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to persuade the Ashraf Ghani government and its political opponents to form a unified delegation to negotiate with the Taliban. The dialogue could be jeopardised if anti-Taliban forces fail to form a unified team of negotiators and agree on the outline of a deal to be made with the Taliban.

The Taliban-US peace agreement would be the first major step towards ending the bloodshed and stabilising Afghanistan, forming a roadmap that could eventually bring a durable peace. For that to happen, those claiming to be the leaders of the Afghan people, including the present ruling elite and the Taliban, will have to make compromises instead of taking rigid positions during the upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue.

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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