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As Afghan President Ghani’s popularity plummets at home and the spring fighting season inflicts heavy casualties across the country, a direct meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban took place in Qatar on 2 – 3 May.
Participants, who attended in a personal capacity the ‘non-official meeting on security in Afghanistan’ led by the group Pugwash, which specialises in conflict resolution, were quick to downplay any notion that negotiations had taken place with the Taliban releasing a statement calling the meeting a ‘research conference’ and Afghan government officials describing them as ‘scientific discussions to various media outlets.’ But, for once, neither side denied that the meeting was taking place and the prospect of peace talks was high on the agenda.
Direct engagement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is an important step towards an eventual political solution. While the Afghan government did not send an official delegation, participants on both sides were the sort likely to participate in any formal peace talks. Among the twenty representatives from the ‘Afghan’ side was Abdul Qayoum Kochai – the uncle of President Ghani believed to be a key player in Ghani’s peace strategy – at least two representatives from the High Peace Council and three women. The Taliban delegation was led by Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, (Deputy Minister of Health and Foreign Affairs during the Taliban regime), an official who was often deemed ‘presentable’ enough by Kandahar to be assigned to entertain foreign visitors. The eight-member delegation included Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, a member of the Taliban’s policy department in Doha, Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, belonging to the Taliban’s political council who led a delegation to Beijing last year and Sohail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Qatar office.
A representative of the Hezb-i Islami military wing also took part. Hopes and expectations were therefore relatively high for the talks. Conditions for political reconciliation are perhaps more conducive now than ever before: Karzai is gone from office, Pakistan is appearing to play a more helpful role – no doubt encouraged by China – which is demonstrating a willingness to engage more in the region, and everyone’s initial red lines have softened.
The location of the talks also held some significance. Qatar has long expressed an interest in facilitating the Afghan peace process and is home to the (albeit closed) Taliban office. While the office, which opened in June 2013, and almost immediately closed amid objections from the Afghan government to the fanfare surrounding the opening, its representatives have stayed in Doha and are acting with some authority. Should the Taliban open a political office, a logical location would be in Doha, which could then serve as a location for peace talks.
In the event, the content of the discussions, or at least the parts revealed to the public, provided some room for cautious optimism. The report released on Pugwash’s website, proclaimed that the meeting was ‘constructive, cooperative and friendly’ and presented a 15-point list of important issues discussed.
A key breakthrough included the general agreement that ‘no party should have a monopoly on power,’ an unprecedented public acceptance of power sharing on the part of the Taliban, and a reported openness towards elections. All participants also supported an end to the war and the need to speed up the peace process. Other issues discussed included the delisting of black-listed Taliban in order to facilitate the peace process and the release of political prisoners.
Progress, But Hurdles Ahead
That said, while the ‘red lines’ may have softened, there are still considerable hurdles to overcome. While power-sharing may be acceptable to the Taliban, on 2 May, they released a parallel statement () calling for a redraft of the constitution in line with ‘the pious principles of the sacred religion of Islam.’ This could amount to a complete rejection of the current constitution. Here, the more pragmatic Taliban leaders face big hurdles since these conditions are unlikely to be moderate enough for any negotiating counterpart in Kabul to accept and would likely be strongly resisted by the Afghan public. At the same time, given that the Taliban is by no means monolithic, there is no guarantee that the rank-and-file will respect any agreement. This, compounded by the lack of high-profile leadership due to Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s public absence, could well complicate any talks.
The lingering presence of foreign troops, even in a non-combat role, coupled with the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, are also virulently opposed by some Taliban leaders, who are not all happy about being pressured by Pakistan (or anyone else) to negotiate before they are ready.
Participants at Doha all agreed that foreign forces should leave soon. Suspicion about the timeline of this withdrawal, which has already been pushed back once this year (Obama confirmed another delay in the withdrawal timetable during Ghani’s visit to the US in March) is an obstacle. Despite some indications that the Taliban had softened their stance, their statement on 2 May clearly stated that foreign troops must leave before peace talks can begin.
Ultimately, the Taliban was always likely to test the strength of the new government either in the belief that they can win militarily or to secure a stronger bargaining position. There is also an underling fear among the leadership that peace talks could drive the rank-and-file towards rival groups, such as Daesh. Indeed, the timely Taliban statement issued by the spokesperson Zajibullah Mujahid ahead of the meeting in Qatar appeared designed to allay concerns among Taliban fighters and commanders in the field about whether formal peace talks had actually begun, which might make it harder to keep them engaged in warfare. Media outlets also reported that they rejected a request from the Afghan government side at Doha to stop fighting. They are also ignoring Pakistan’s request, at least publicly, to pursue their objectives through peaceful means, as voiced by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry in a statement to Voice of America.
The fighting season has so far been marked by heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces including in recent weeks in Kunduz, Balkh and Badakhshan. While the Afghan government side currently appears able to withstand these offensives, the question is for how long. The Ministry of Interior recently reported that at least thirteen policemen were killed during the weekend of the Doha talks in Badakhshan alone while other officials report a loss of around 330 security personnel each week. The Taliban, which has proven its ability to rapidly replenish its fighting ranks, must therefore believe that time is on their side.
Was Doha then another case of talks about talks unlikely to result in tangible progress? Anyone who has followed the Afghan peace process for any length of time would perhaps find it difficult to argue otherwise. In reality, there is no peace process and there are strong voices on both sides of the conflict who are still opposed to any form of settlement. That said; what is becoming more clearer and significantly, more public are the positions of each side and key points of contention, which will form the basis of any negotiation process,. This fighting season will likely play itself out. The only hope is that in doing so, it does not irreparably undermine some of the tentative steps that have been made.