The much-awaited intra-Afghan peace negotiations between the delegation representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban began on 12th September 2020 in the Qatari capital of Doha. It is arguably the most critical phase of the Afghan peace process as it brought the two warring sides face-to-face to negotiate peace for the first time. Some of the key goals of these negotiations are to achieve a permanent ceasefire and bring about a political settlement to decades’-long conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and destabilized Afghanistan. This Issue Brief attempts to provide an overview of the peace process so far by briefly looking at the developments that paved way for the talks, the beginning of the negotiations in Doha, various contours of the peace negotiations including key challenges and the way ahead.
The path to the talks
The talks between the warring sides were supposed to begin on 10th March but had repeatedly been pushed back due to disagreements over prisoner exchange. These talks were the outcome of a landmark deal[i] signed by the Taliban and the United States (US) on 29th February 2020. It outlined how the Afghan government, which was not party to the agreement would release 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange of 1000 government prisoners. Despite obstacles, prisoner exchange was carried in the past few months to fulfill these conditions. But the final hurdle appeared with respect to the release of 400 high-risk detainees, which included six Afghan Taliban inmates whose release was opposed by foreign allies. President Ghani sought the approval of Loya Jirga (grand assembly of tribal elders) and released the Taliban prisoners- compromising its security – to remove the final obstacle for the Intra-Afghan Talks in Doha. According to reports[ii], six “hardcore” detainees whose release was opposed by France and Australia were transferred to Doha “for direct supervision during the talks”; they are expected to be in Qatar while the talks are on and could be brought back to Kabul after that. Once the final hurdle over the release of six inmates was resolved, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry indicated that the Intra-Afghan Negotiations which represent “a step forward in bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan”; would commence from 12th September.
The start of the talks
The commencement ceremony of the talks witnessed the participation of important regional and international stakeholders including the US, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Japan, Germany, Spain, Qatar and representatives from global bodies such as the United Nations (UN), NATO, European Union (EU) among others, who made their opening remarks, many of them joined virtually because of coronavirus restrictions. During their speech each of the participants shared their expectations from the talks and assured their commitment and support towards a peaceful Afghanistan. The key speakers at the opening ceremony included Abdullah Abdullah, chairperson of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.[iii] In his remark, Abdullah Abdullah, thanked the Taliban for showing “willingness to negotiate”. He added “I believe that if we give hands to each other and honestly work for peace, the current ongoing misery in the country will end.”[iv] Mullah Baradar stated that Taliban has acted according to the points outlined in the previous agreement and requested the other side to act on the points agreed to.
The speakers at the opening ceremony hailed the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban as a ‘historic opportunity’ and asked the Afghan parties to keep an open mind during the talks. While addressing the gathering Mike Pompeo minced no words in signaling that it is now for different Afghan stakeholders to overcome their differences and take the talk forward. He said "we are prepared to support your negotiations should you ask. But the time is yours". He further added that "your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future U.S. assistance"[v], clearly indicating that US aid to Afghanistan is no longer a “blank cheque”. Addressing the gathering virtually, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reiterated India’s support for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process and said that the peace process should “respect national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan” and “promote human rights and democracy”.[vi] There was an unanimous call for an immediate, comprehensive and unconditional ceasefire by the speakers.
Contours of the ‘Peace’ Talks
After the opening ceremony the two sides have met a few times which resulted in the creation of contact groups with two members from each side.[vii] The aim of the initial meetings was to decide on the agenda of the final talks and also to work out the terms and conditions that the negotiations would have to abide by. Undoubtedly, the coming together of the two warring side to negotiate peace is a significant step, yet actual negotiations could not take place due to divergent views on the means of dispute settlement. The two sides have agreed on 18 out of 20 articles for the procedural rules, but two main articles purtaining to the validity of the US-Taliban deal and the school of jurisprudence- remain unresolved.
According to the Taliban, the Afghan government is reluctant to accept the US-Taliban peace accord signed on 29th February 2020.[viii] Kabul’s position on the matter is understandable given the fact that it was not party to the said agreement. The other factor behind the slowing down of the peace process being the Afghan government’s contestation with the Taliban over the later’s demand for making ‘Hanafi’ school of Islamic jurisprudence (followed by the majority of Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslims) the guiding principle for framing laws in Afghanistan. Given Afghanistan’s substantial Shi’ite population that constitute around 10 to15 percent[ix] of the total population, the Afghan government expresses concerns that only a Sunni interpretation of the Sharia of the Islamic law might be considered discriminatory by the Shi’ite Hazara community and other religious monorities. However as per reports quoting Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the deadlock pertaining to jusrispudence is close to being resolved after both sides provisionally agreed “to recognise the principal issue of Hanafi’s role without any discrimination to Shi'ite communities or minorities.”[x] Evidently, the development indicated a compromise by the Afghan negotiators to bring the talks back on track, but concerns regarding minorities still loom large.
The issue of women’s rights will be a crucial aspect in the negotiations between the current Afghan government and the Taliban. The US once vowed to liberate Afghan women from the draconian repression of the Taliban, but the signed accord offered no guarantees to preserve women’s rights or civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution. Throughout the past few years many observers have raised serious concerns about the risks that legitimising the Taliban and their return to some degree of political power in Afghanistan would create for the future status of Afghan women. But any skepticism that had the potential to derail the peace process was deliberately brushed aside in a bid to get the Taliban to the table. Although the Taliban have promised to potect women’s rights under Islam, they have refrained from specifying how that grarantee would manifest itself. At a time when its women face a legitimate fear of their rights being compromised during negotiations, Afghanistan securing a seat at UN Commission on Status of Women for the first time in history, is nevertheless being seen as a historic achievement for them.
The nature of the future political order in Afghanistan is also one of the most crucial points of discussion. So far there has not been any clarity on whether or not the Taliban would be willing to work within a democratic political and constitutional set-up. This deliberate ambiguity about their political agenda has added to the overall confusion. A vastly dissimilar and competing vision of an Afghan end-state could be a major spoiler in the negotiation. As far as Kabul is concerned they would like to preserve the gains they have made over the last two decades, they would also like to preserve the essential elements of the constitution of the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’. On the other hand, the Taliban will fight hard to retain most of the elements of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (which they called themselves, when they controlled most of the territory of Afghanistan in the 1990s). According to Former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, “the process of reconciliation of these very different views of Afghanistan’s constitutional future will be a major stumbling block”[xi] and therefore, he foresees enormous difficulties in the reconciliation.
The US-Taliban deal indicated foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban. President Trump, who is seeking re-election next month has recently declared that US troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas”.[xii] The fact that the Taliban insurgency and violence has continued unabated even while the peace negotiations are taking place involving both parties, there is hardly any reason to be hopeful that in the absence of US troops, they would mend their ways. On the contrary, this would make the Taliban position even stronger both on the battlefield as well as on the negotiation table. With the significantly reduced foreign troops presence in Afghanistan, the emboldened Taliban would be free to heighten the violence to seize political control of the country from the government.
Long road to Peace
The quest for ‘peace’ for sides locked in a four decades long series of wars was never meant to be easy. The period since the official start of the talks has only underlined this further. In the mean time, both sides have been actively trying to create a stronger ground for themselves. Just before the beginning of the negotiations a high level Taliban delegation went to Pakistan to discuss the way forward in the Afghan peace process; the Taliban side also changed the composition of its negotiating team on the eve of the negotaions. In a bid to gather regional and international support in the governemnt’s favour Abdullah Abdullah also made trip to Pakistan and India very recently. Earlier the U.S Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad also reached out to regional players to garner support for the peace process in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, following diplomatic pressure from US and the countries involved in the peace process, efforts are being made to settle the disagreements about the disputed issues and accelerate the negotiations in Doha. Reportedly, there is a dicussion on the presence of a facilitator, to help them to settle the issues of contention.[xiii] For a country that has been in turmoil from 1970s, and witnessed Communist rule, Mujahideed rule, Taliban rule and the west backed Islamic Republic- reconciling contradictions of the past decades will be a humomgoues task. Unquestionably, the Afghan peace process is an opportunity for Afghanistan to bring an end to years of conflict and establish peace, but achieving that end will require considerable compromises by both sides.
Amrullah Saleh, First Vice President of Afghanistan in a recent interview[xiv] called the talks with Taliban “one of the most difficult peace negotiations in history” and stated that the discussions on “symbolism and values” will be most challenging part of the negotiation.” Saleh stressed that the eventual settlement must ensure safety and respect of everyone and tolerance for diversity – “If I try to put a tie on the neck of the Taliban the peace process will fail, but if they try to put a turban on my head it will also fail. The solution is to have a suit and turban both under the same ceiling…any side trying to dominate the other will make it [peace negotiations] fail.”[xv] The fact that, in the course of multiple discussions in various venues, the Taliban representatives have not shown much flexibility on issues of significance makes it easy to be cynical about the outcome of the negotiations. It is however, fair to say that talks are merely the initial step in what will at best be a long and complex process and continued international support towards the same would be imperative in order to give ‘peace’ a chance in Afghanistan.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[i] “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”. US Department of State, February 29,2020. Available at:https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/?fbclid=IwAR07KIQXZ_-hL_34ppgpUGHIOyLgqithW7HXpXvq3DV0gDHZBia7grnB7vk (Accessed on 2.3.2020)
[ii] Mohammad Arif Sheva, “Transferring six “hardcore” Taliban prisoners to Doha Ignite protest. The Khaama Press, September 11, 2020. Available at: https://www.khaama.com/transferring-6-hardcore-taliban-prisoners-to-doha-ignites-protest-345345/(Accessed on 12.9.2020)
[iii] Sheerena Qazi, “Talks between Afghan Government and Taliban open in Qatar”, Al Jazeera, September 12, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/peace-afghan-gov-taliban-arrive-talks-200911143549952.html (Accessed on 12.9.2020)
[iv] “Historic talks held in Qatar on ending war in Afghanistan”, Al Jazeera, September 12 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2020/09/historic-talks-held-qatar-war-afghanistan-200912194728612.html (Accessed on 12.9.2020)
[v] September 12, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/peace-afghan-gov-taliban-arrive-talks-200911143549952.html (Accessed on 12.9.2020
[vi] Subhajit Roy,“India attends intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Jaishankar says peace process must be Afghan-led”,The Indian Express,September 12, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-to-attend-intra-afghan-talks-in-doha-today-jaishankar-to-join-virtually-6592958/(Accessed on 12.9.2020)
[vii] “Afghan Government, Taliban Negotiating teams hold meeting in Doha”. Bakhtar News Agency, September 17, 2020. Available at: http://www.bakhtarnews.com.af/eng/politics/item/44039-afghan-government-taliban-negotiating-teams-hold-meeting-in-doha.html (Accessed on 18.9.2020)
[viii] “Taliban negotiating team says Afghan govt unwilling to accept us peace deal”. ANI News Agency, September 28, 2020. Available at: https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/taliban-negotiating-team-says-afghan-govt-unwilling-to-accept-us-peace-deal20200928065905/ (Accessed on 17.10.2020)
[ix] 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Afghanistan. US Department of State, 2019. Available at: https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/afghanistan/ (Accessed on 17.10.2020)
[x] “Negotiators “near compromise” in stalled Afghan Peace Talks”. Gandhara. October 1, 2020. Available at: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/negotiators-near-compromise-in-stalled-afghan-peace-talks/30867758.html (Accessed on 17.10.2020)
[xi] India’s EAM Jaishankar joins intra-Afghan ceremony in Doha virtually- Afghan Taliban Peace Talk. WION News, September 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF0tjMxcvFY&t=889s (Accessed on 17.10.2020)
[xii] “Trump says US Troops in Afghanistan should be home by Christmas”.AL Jazeera, Oct 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/8/trump-wants-us-troops-out-of-afghanistan-by-christmas (Accessed on 17.10.2020)
[xiii] “DOHA: Negotiators discuss contested Points ”.The Tolo News, Oct 17, 2020. Available at: https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-167078 (Accessed on 19.10.2020)
[xiv] “Afghan VP Amrullah Saleh: Taliban talks one of the most difficult peace negotiations in history”. Al Arabia, September 7, 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwHvzNzMaFg&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR1JHSVoEorQBEuyuTqbl3_ofjuveg3NJ9SE5XwoPmlCUJq3eA89KKHxf70 (Accessed on 19.10.2020)