People & Society

Which way the Afghan peace process is headed

Updated Apr 16, 2019 04:35pm

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at a meeting with the United States special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, in Kabul | AFP
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at a meeting with the United States special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, in Kabul | AFP

Zay Khalilzad, special representative of the United States for Afghanistan reconciliation, must have been highly satisfied with the outcome of his latest round of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. As the talks concluded, he immediately took to Twitter, elated.

“Emerging from three solid days of talks with the Taliban in Doha. Meetings were productive. We continue to take slow, steady steps toward understanding and eventually peace,” he tweeted on February 28. “There is also progress on forming a national team [of non-Taliban delegates] in Kabul ready to engage in intra-Afghan Before “moving on to talks”, Khalilzad met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-in-command of the elusive Taliban chief Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada. “Just finished a working lunch with Mullah Baradar and his team. First time we’ve met,” he tweeted.

In earlier tweets, Khalilzad said his January talks with the Taliban, also in Doha, were “more productive than they have been in the past”. Those negotiations went on for six days — longer than their original schedule. The two sides, according to him, agreed to a “draft framework” for a peace agreement. Under this framework, the Americans will commit themselves to withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban will guarantee that terrorist groups do not have bases and operations in the areas under their control.

If this account is to be believed, nothing is standing in the way of peace in Afghanistan. Everyone who matters – starting with the Afghan government, that welcomed Mullah Baradar’s participation in the talks, down to the governments in Pakistan and Iran – seems to be on board, finally, for a negotiated resolution of the four-decades-long strife in the country.

“This is good news for the peace process,” Mohammed Umer Daudzai, Afghan president’s special envoy on peace, told an American newspaper. “If [Mullah Baradar] is leading the negotiations, he can make decisions more quickly.”

Khalilzad, on his part, thanked Pakistan for helping Mullah Baradar travel to Qatar (helping him bypass travel restrictions placed on the Taliban leaders by the United Nations Security Council). “[I] appreciate … Pakistan in facilitating [his] travel,” said Khalilzad in a tweet on February 25.

The Taliban, too, sounded extremely optimistic. “Yes, there is a possibility we will reach some results,” their spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told the Associated Press news agency ahead of the most recent parleys. Only weeks earlier, the situation did not appear as hopeful. The Taliban had announced that Mullah Baradar himself would not take part in the negotiations. Afghanistan’s cultural attaché in Washington DC, Majeed Qarar, went so far as to allege – without any proof – that this was because Pakistan had detained Mullah Baradar again (after having released him in October 2018).

As his presence in Doha later confirmed, he was not being kept in custody but Pakistan did use a combination of diplomacy and arm-twisting to make the Taliban join the negotiations. “A Taliban-era minister, Hafez Mohibullah, was arrested from Peshawar in January 2019. Movement of the Taliban’s family members in Pakistan was curtailed and their offices were closed down,” says Juma Khan Sufi, a Peshawar-based political activist and analyst. “These were unrecognised offices,” he says. “Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban ever officially admitted to their presence.”

Reuters news agency quoted a senior Taliban source from Peshawar as saying that, after Mohibullah’s arrest, “Pakistani authorities started raids on many other houses of the Taliban movement, their friends and commanders in different places in Pakistan.”

The Afghan government, too, was protesting angrily that any negotiations without its involvement were not going to work. “What are they agreeing to, with whom? Where is their implementing power?” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked in a television interview after an intra-Afghan conference took place in Moscow early last month to discuss a future political and constitutional system for Afghanistan. “They could hold a hundred such meetings, but until the Afghan government, the Afghan Parliament, the legal institutions of Afghanistan approve it, it is just agreements on paper,” he said.

His government also launched a diplomatic effort to scupper talks between the Taliban and Khalizad, scheduled to be held in the middle of last month in Islamabad. It successfully invoked the United Nations ban to stop the Taliban delegates from travelling for the meeting.

In a similar move, the Afghan government did not allow Anas Haqqani, a part of the Taliban’s 14-member delegation, to travel to Doha. He is a son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani Network, a feared militant group affiliated with the Taliban. Though he is in jail in Kabul, the Taliban made him a delegate hoping that he will be released. Kabul did not budge.

There seemed to have been considerable confusion, if not outright disagreement, within the Taliban too. Their lack of clarity was on public display when they could not decide on whether or not to meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan while being in Islamabad for talks with Khalilzad. An article published in Foreign Policy magazine claimed there were differences among them on who should have been a part of the delegation that would meet Imran Khan.

They also did not have a consensus on what would be the official agenda of their meeting with Imran Khan because they wanted to avoid the impression that they are following Islamabad’s dictation. A senior journalist based in Islamabad, who has been covering Afghanistan for many years, claims the Taliban members on the ground were opposed to the meeting because they saw no rationale for it. Some of their leaders suggested that they could discuss with Imran Khan the situation of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan but others objected, says the journalist. “How could you put this on the agenda when you do not enjoy an official status?” is what they asked.

Some reports suggested they were split on whether it was appropriate for them to visit Islamabad at a time when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was also in the city on a high profile official visit. The reason for their reluctance, as stated by Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based journalist with vast experience of covering the Taliban, was that the “Taliban are not on good terms with Saudi Arabia”.

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, rejected reports about these differences and said these were the creations of certain news outlets which, according to him, had started a propaganda campaign against the Taliban’s participation in negotiations. He cited the case of a western news agency that, he alleged, published a whole list of reasons why Mullah Baradar would not take part in the Qatar talks.

His clarification, no matter how critical of the media coverage, did not stop speculations over the itinerary of the Taliban’s visit to Islamabad as well as about the people they were supposed to meet — including Muhammad bin Salman.

Until, of course, he announced that the visit had been called off due to the travel ban.

Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai is the visible face of the Taliban in talks with the United States, as well as with other Afghans. Born in 1963 in Baraki Barak district of Afghanistan’s Logar province and educated and trained in a military college in India, according to a The New York Times report, he is a fluent speaker of English. After his return to Afghanistan from India, he joined a religious resistance force fighting against the Soviet troops that had entered Afghanistan in 1979.

His military training came in handy for him in guerrilla activities and his language skills made him an important interlocutor for Pakistanis, Saudis and Americans, all supporting the resistance against the Soviets. These qualities helped him become a top aide to Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, one of the main guerrilla commanders.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai with Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai  | Tass/Barcroft images
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai with Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai | Tass/Barcroft images

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Stanekzai initially worked as a deputy minister of foreign affairs. Later, he became a deputy minister of health. He arrived in Doha in January 2012 when the Taliban were allowed to open a political office there. In August 2015, he became the head of that office. He recently led the Taliban delegation that took part in the Moscow conference. The organisers of the event, according to The New York Times, were ostensibly Afghan expatriates living in Russia but it had the backing of the Russian authorities as well. The hotel where it took place is owned by Kremlin, the headquarters of the government in Moscow.

The delegates of the conference, apart from the Taliban, included former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, former provincial governor Atta Muhammad Noor, a prominent member of the Afghan parliament Muhammad Mohaqiq, and former Afghan interior minister Hanif Atmer. “It is too early to decide if [conferences like this] would lead to peace in Afghanistan,” says Pakistan’s former national security adviser Sartaj Aziz, “but the Moscow meeting was remarkable for its composition because it had all the stakeholders except the Afghan government.”

Some of the non-Taliban delegates at the conference argued that they represented the Afghans better than the government in Kabul did. “We have been fighting for 40 years, and we are the people with influence, not Ghani,” The New York Times quoted Noor as saying. In December 2017, he was sacked by Ghani from his long-held post as governor of the north-western Balkh province.

The Afghan politicians also emphasised in Moscow that any future setup in Afghanistan must include all positive social and political developments made over the last two decades, particularly those concerning the role of women in the state and society. The Taliban representatives, to the surprise of the other side, responded positively.

Stanekzai, according to The New York Times, said the Taliban were “committed to all rights given to women by Islam … such as trade, ownership, inheritance, education, work and the choice of partner, security and education, and a good life.” Though he did not recognise Afghanistan’s current constitution, calling it a copy of western constitutions, he assured other delegates that the Taliban “did not seek to monopolize power inside Afghanistan”.

Back in Afghanistan, Afghan women parliamentarians and civil rights organisations remain sceptical. To ensure that the Taliban do not change their stance, they demand, women should get representation in the High Peace Council, the highest official body to carry out negotiations with the Taliban and other militant groups. They also insist that no agreement at any level will be acceptable to them unless Afghan women are made a part of all negotiations. “I do not want such a peace which brings stability but puts me in chains,” an Afghan female journalist, Najwa Aleemi, told news media in Kabul recently.

The Taliban seem to have made some important gains after the initiation of the peace talks — the most important being the recognition of their central position in the peace process. The fact that they have finally forced the Americans to have direct negotiations with them is seen by them as an acceptance of their geostrategic advantage within Afghanistan. The writ of the central government in Kabul is strongly contested in many areas; in many other areas, it does not even have a nominal presence. The Taliban, on the other hand, have presence in 70 per cent of the country without any major internal challenge.

This, in some cases, has led them to prefer bravado over discretion. To cite just one example: soon after they concluded the talks in Qatar with Khalilzad in January, they claimed the Americans had agreed to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad took little time to deny this. “Our shared purpose is to reach a peace agreement (not withdrawal agreement) that is worthy of the sacrifices made over decades of war,” he said in a tweet after briefing senior European Union officials and representatives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) about the peace process last month.

In a video statement after the same talks, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Stanekzai, claimed the Afghan army would be dissolved as soon as there was a peace agreement. The Afghan government immediately protested, prompting Stanekzai to clarify that what he, in fact, meant was that certain reforms would be brought in all the state institutions, including the army.

This tiff was nothing if not symptomatic of a bigger trust deficit between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Each of them has blamed the other in the past for hurting the peace process at various occasions. The Taliban accuse the Afghan government of leaking the news of their founding leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s death in July 2015, only a few days after some helpful progress had been made in talks in Murree. The death, which actually happened in 2013, was kept secret by the Taliban but its disclosure diverted their attention from talks to choosing a new leader and keeping their organisational unity intact. The government in Kabul says that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s arrest in Pakistan in 2010 was a similar move.

This tiff was nothing if not symptomatic of a bigger trust deficit between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Each of them has blamed the other in the past for hurting the peace process at various occasions. The Taliban accuse the Afghan government of leaking the news of their founding leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s death in July 2015, only a few days after some helpful progress had been made in talks in Murree. The death, which actually happened in 2013, was kept secret by the Taliban but its disclosure diverted their attention from talks to choosing a new leader and keeping their organisational unity intact. The government in Kabul says that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s arrest in Pakistan in 2010 was a similar move.

It took place in the wake of his contacts with the then Afghan president Karzai (possibly without the knowledge of his superiors and colleagues within the Taliban).

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa met a group of senior journalists a few weeks ago. He told them that Pakistan had suffered a lot as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan and, therefore, was determined to see the Afghan peace talks succeed. “Without talking to [the Taliban], we are creating an environment that encourages talks,” he is quoted by a participant of the meeting to have said.

Bajwa told the journalists that Pakistan had made it clear to the Taliban that they had only one choice: talks. Pakistan will have nothing to do with them if they do not agree to talk, he is reported to have said. These warnings seem to have worked. This, according to Lieutenant General (retired) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, means that Pakistan still has a lot of leverage with the Taliban.

Not everyone among the Taliban is happy with Pakistan though. One of their senior officials in Peshawar was reported by Reuters news agency as saying that “Pakistan is saying what the Afghan government and the [United States] wanted”. This allegation, too, is an acknowledgement, even though a backhanded one, of Pakistan’s importance to the Afghan peace process.

Besides Pakistan, Washington remains one of the most important pieces in the Afghan jigsaw puzzle. And since the coming into power of Donald Trump in the United States, this piece seems to be willing to withdraw from the centre stage. Imtiaz Gul, a defence analyst based in Islamabad, sees this as something that may guarantee the success of the peace process. Trump is the basic difference between the current round of peace talks and the flopped previous ones, he says.

Gul says Trump wants to leave Afghanistan before the primary season starts for the next American election later this year. “He just wants to convey to the people that he has pulled out of Afghanistan as he promised.” But, as almost everyone agrees, Trump is highly unpredictable. He, in fact, takes pride in being so. How will his unpredictability influence the Afghan peace process is an important question.

Delegates at the peace talks in Moscow | AFP
Delegates at the peace talks in Moscow | AFP

Part of the answer lies in the fact that he has always championed the idea of keeping America’s military interventions abroad to the minimum. “This is a president who has never been comfortable [with] staying in Afghanistan and is likely to be thinking about the political environment at home,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington DC. “His core base doesn’t support extended overseas military presences.”

Yet Kugelman believes that American troops are not going to leave Afghanistan anytime soon. “While Trump is itching to head for the exits, his advisers have made it clear to him that a sudden and total withdrawal – particularly in the absence of a deal with the Taliban – will be dangerous,” he says. “We can expect him to wait it out and see if his negotiators can get a deal with the Taliban before the Afghan election this summer.” Trump, he says, is likely to come back to the idea of a full withdrawal only if there is no deal by summer.

While Pakistanis remain firmly behind the peace process and Trump is also likely to give the peace process a chance, where does this leave the rest of the actors involved? Can the Afghan government keep itself in power if the Americans decide to leave? Are the Taliban as united, motivated and militarily nimble as they were when they took over power in Kabul in 1996 by subduing almost all their opponents?

There are fears that, without American support, the Afghan government will be as powerless as the government of Dr Najibullah – whom the Afghan mujahideen replaced in 1992 – was after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in 1988. For a number of reasons, however, the situation this time round augurs better for the administration in Kabul.

Firstly, Afghanistan became nobody’s concern in the international community after the Soviet withdrawal. This time round, its location right next to rising superpower China, as well as its proximity to Pakistan, India and Iran, each of them vying aggressively for regional supremacy, may mean that outsiders continue to remain seriously interested in Afghanistan’s stability. This, at least partially, explains why the world has committed to give 15.2 billion US dollars to Afghanistan till 2020 in economic and financial support.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a very real threat of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), or Daesh, in Afghanistan. If the organisation is able to take advantage of the security vacuum that an American withdrawal may create, it may gain strength quickly and bring its leadership and cadres from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. The world can ignore this threat only at its own peril — as was evident when the west, albeit involuntarily, allowed the ISIS to take root in Iraq and Syria and then, before long, it was carrying out acts of terrorism in the heart of Europe.

Equally significantly, the international community should be wary of the seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence in Afghanistan. If the recent history of that country is anything to go by, those living by the gun now are highly likely to continue living – and dying – by the gun in the foreseeable future.

“Thousands of young men – aged between 18 and 25 years – are fighting under various Taliban commanders. The fear is that they may opt for a better paymaster,” says Fakhar Kakakhel, a journalist based in Peshawar who has covered the Pak-Afghan border for many years. “The Taliban pay roughly 250-300 dollars to a fighter, he says. “Daesh can woo many of them since it has been paying roughly 700 dollars to even novices.”

All said, it is the Taliban who hold the key to peace in Afghanistan. Will they give up arms and, instead, allow the Afghan people to choose or reject them in an election?

Ayaz Wazir, a former Pakistani diplomat who has served in Afghanistan, believes people in Afghanistan will like to see the Taliban as one of the many political options to choose from, rather than being coerced into submission by them through the barrel of a gun. Given a multiplicity of choices, the Taliban may not find it easy to win all the hearts and minds they need to win to get back to ruling Afghanistan. “They are a fighting force which draws its strength from field commanders. They do not have strong support among people,” says Wazir.

The best option for the Taliban in particular and the Afghans in general, in his opinion, is to demand the formation of an interim government that has representation from every section of the Afghan society. This government should then convene a Loya Jirga, a grand (but unelected) assembly of tribal chiefs, political leaders, parliamentarians, religious and ethnic minorities, women, current and former warlords and local religious groups such as the Taliban.

“The Loya Jirga must have the authority to make a final call about a future political setup for Afghanistan, determining who gets what and in what manner,” Wazir suggests.

Afghanistan has seen interim governments and Loya Jirgas before — without any lasting impact on the ongoing conflict in the country. There are, of course, no easy pathways to peace - notwithstanding the optimism generated by the latest round of talks in Qatar.


Behroz Khan is a Washington-based senior journalist currently working with the Voice of America.


This was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.