Statements coming from former Afghan government chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and, more importantly, the Taliban have been expressing the view that the much-awaited intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government may finally take place, a key component of the peace process that has been designed to bring stability to Afghanistan.
The fact that the Taliban have expressed their willingness to engage with Kabul is a significant development considering that they have refused to do so in the past, including up until recent weeks. According to the US-Taliban Agreement made in February, the intra-Afghan talks were meant to begin on 10 March, and it has been unclear since if they would in fact begin.
While no specific date has been given, it is evident that the groundwork has already been laid in anticipation of the much-needed talks, such as the appointment of Abdullah as chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) that will spearhead the Afghan peace process on Kabul’s behalf. Moreover, like during the previous three-day Eid ceasefire declared by the Taliban from 24-26 May, the group recently declared another three-day ceasefire to respect the Eid Al-Adha.
But while steps are being made in the right direction, issues revolving around the release of Taliban prisoners continue to be contentious. While the Taliban claim to have fulfilled their part of the US-Taliban Agreement by releasing all the 1,000 Afghan government prisoners they held, the Afghan government has yet to fulfill its part by releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
Time and time again, President Ghani has caused unnecessary delays in the release of Taliban prisoners, which has led to a delay in the intra-Afghan talks. However, according to the Afghan government, so far 4,600 Taliban prisoners have been released, including the recently freed 500 Taliban prisoners in response to the group’s three-day ceasefire announcement. The fate of the remaining 400 remains unclear although Ghani has said that a loya jirga, or community meeting, will be convened to discuss their release.
While news of the intra-Afghan talks is no doubt a much-needed move in the right direction, it is only the beginning of a highly sensitive and complex process that will require patience and compromise from all sides. After all, as the recent past has shown, highs can quickly be replaced by lows, and a number of hurdles continue to stand in the way of peace.
While the Taliban finally appear to have abandoned their previous rigidity of not engaging with Kabul, their reluctance to abandon or reduce the use of violence against Afghan government forces continues to be a stumbling block in the way of peace. Sustained efforts on all fronts must thus be carried out before optimism can take over.
Due to the language used in the US-Taliban Agreement that says that international forces will not be targeted, the Taliban have halted attacks against these forces. However, they have continued to target government forces. For any meaningful progress towards peace to take place, the Taliban will have to revisit this strategy and realise that they can no longer rely on violence as a means to further their goals.
If the Taliban truly want peace, they must honour their commitment across the board and not differentiate between those they can kill and those they cannot. Their justification for attacking government forces is weak, since no attacks can be condoned. Moreover, they must begin to see the government as an equal. If they can accept the US, their erstwhile primary enemy, as an interlocutor, it is not far-fetched to imagine that they can, and should, also accept the government as an equal.
Moreover, this is a historic opportunity for the Afghans to rewrite their history. For the Taliban, it is a unique and timely moment as well since the group is suffering from war fatigue, and it must desire an end to the decades of bloodshed in the country. The group can also present itself as a responsible and mature stakeholder and secure for itself a legitimate place in the Afghan polity, which is not something that has always been on the cards.
At the same time, Ghani and Abdullah also have the chance to play active and meaningful roles to deliver peace to the Afghan people, who have waited for far too long and gone through far too much violence and trauma. All the ingredients for a peace deal are in place; it is now up to the stakeholders to show themselves as both ready and willing to work hard for it to succeed.
The US, a major stakeholder and signatory to the deal, has a responsibility as well. It must push all sides to fulfill their part of the agreement and ensure a credible and workable peace deal, one that is acceptable to all stakeholders and that is for the benefit of the Afghan people.
As has been seen in the past, haphazard and hasty compromises that are prone to collapse need to be avoided at all costs. Instead, Washington will need to play a proactive role, ensuring it allows the Afghans to come up with their own plans, but knowing when to intervene and put pressure on all sides, particularly the Taliban regarding a reduction and eventual halt in their attacks.
Washington will also have to make sure that the Afghan government does not create hurdles to the implementation of the agreement, such as causing delays in the exchange of prisoners or in the holding of the intra-Afghan talks as it has done in the past.
An important concern that has been missing so far from the discourse about the peace process has been the question of national and social healing as well as national reconciliation and reintegration. Afghanistan needs to see concrete steps made on these fronts. Political and national reconciliation have time and time again posed challenges to pursuing peace talks with the Taliban, thus highlighting the fact that the major threat is not external but internal.
Strategies involving civil society, government bodies and external support must all accompany any political moves for peace. The ownership and desire for it must come from the Afghans themselves, and the country’s political leadership must provide support and a suitable platform. The Afghans have to try and overcome the past, as bloody and difficult as that may be, and forget previous enmities by focusing instead on creating a new history for themselves that must be based on inclusiveness.
But for this to happen, Kabul and the Taliban must move beyond petty politics and think about the people of Afghanistan who have suffered for far too long and who they both claim to represent. The need of the hour is for all Afghans to unite and call for a peaceful and stable future. Without this, the country’s potential that is now often being touted – of mineral resources, of its strategic geographical location in the region, and as a conduit for the whole of South and Central Asia – will be a moot point.
While the results of the intra-Afghan talks will only start to show themselves later, it is important to recognise their occurrence as historic. After all, this will be the first time the Taliban has met with the Afghan government since 2001. Important questions need to be answered, primarily about the desired outcome of the talks.
Now that the intra-Afghan talks are finally on the verge of occurring, critical aspects essential for peace that were overlooked in the US-Taliban Agreement need to be addressed and focused on in the upcoming talks, including the US troop withdrawal. For its part, the US needs to ensure the responsible withdrawal of its forces without undue haste. A hasty withdrawal could have consequences leading to the collapse of the government in Afghanistan and the outbreak of a civil war that could make the country the perfect refuge for terrorists. For now, any reduction in US troops should depend on the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks.
Even though the Taliban have continued to emphasise the need for the withdrawal of the US forces, at the same time the group has stated that it would like to have friendly ties with the US and would like to see the US help to rebuild the country through reconstruction and development, clearly indicating that any remaining US soldiers and contractors could continue to operate in the five military bases in Afghanistan. This highlights the Taliban’s inclination to accept a continued US presence in the country on their terms.
A ceasefire remains the most difficult pre-requisite for any durable peace process to begin. Therefore, securing a sustained ceasefire and one that holds should be the main focus of the upcoming intra-Afghan talks. Counter-terrorism guarantees by the Taliban have also been a critical condition for the US for any peace deal, and for the most part these have been achieved. The Taliban have not been collaborating with any terrorist groups, and this has been exemplified by their resistance to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan, with which they have fought since the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan in 2014/2015.
So far, little to no progress has been made on what kind of political set-up Afghanistan will have in the future after the intra-Afghan talks. It is therefore essential that this future political set-up, together with power-sharing arrangements between the different political factions, the question of a new constitution for Afghanistan and the rights of women, are sincerely addressed in the intra-Afghan talks and not overlooked as they were in the US-Taliban Agreement.
Without addressing such pivotal questions, the talks will be merely an exercise in futility. It is Washington’s responsibility to ensure relative stability in the country before it withdraws its forces, including the creation of an inclusive political set-up that is acceptable to all.
One option could be to push for the continuation of the current political structure and accommodate the Taliban within it. Another option could be for an inclusive interim set-up, an idea which was largely supported by all the Afghan political factions at the 2018 Moscow talks.
Afghanistan has suffered from decades of war, political instability and corruption. The new challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already claimed more than 1,200 lives in the country, is a huge test for its political leadership but also an opportunity for all Afghans to come together, to accommodate each other and to take a chance on peace.
The aim now more than ever should be to focus on achieving peace in Afghanistan. As a first positive gesture, the Taliban must demonstrate a visible reduction in violence, not as a means of weakness or surrender, but rather as an opportunity to further their cause through political engagement. This should be accompanied by the upcoming intra-Afghan talks, which should lead to a timeframe for a gradual and responsible US troop withdrawal, leading to a sustained and credible ceasefire that is not prone to collapse.
*The writer is director of the Centre for the Middle East and Afghanistan at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly