September 11, 2020 10:20:20 am
After the Afghan government released the last batch of six Taliban prisoners on Thursday, both Kabul and the Taliban announced that the long awaited “intra-Afghan” talks would begin on September 12 in Doha, Qatar. It is coincidentally a day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings that ended the five-year Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001.
The talks follow the February 29, 2020 US-Taliban agreement on the withdrawal of US troops. An assassination attempt on Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, the second in two years, which killed 10 bystanders on September 9, was widely seen as a bid to derail the talks. That too was coincidentally on the anniversary of the killing of Northern Alliance Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir, two days before 9/11. Saleh, a Panjshiri, used to be a member of the Northern Alliance.
What has happened since the February agreement leading to the talks?
The talks were to begin on March 10. But the Afghan government, excluded from negotiations between the US and the Taliban, held back on the commitment made by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad that as a pre-condition, Kabul would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, especially as there was no “reduction of violence” as promised by the Taliban.
But under US pressure, President Ashraf Ghani started freeing prisoners in batches. The Taliban released 1,000 government-side prisoners including soldiers. Over the last few days, a tussle over the release of the last few Taliban prisoners held up the talks by a few more days.
The withdrawal of US troops has taken place alongside. In the February 29 agreement, the US had committed to bring down its troops to 8,600 (from 12,000), and shut down five bases, within 135 days. That commitment has apparently been kept. The US recently announced plans to further bring down troops to 4,500 by late October or early November.
Afghan talks: What will the discussions be on?
The US-Taliban agreement said “[a] permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. The participants of intra-Afghan negotiations will discuss the date and modalities of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, including joint implementation mechanisms, which will be announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan”.
If the two main goals are a power-sharing settlement between the Afghan polity and the Taliban, and a ceasefire, the immediate question is which should come first. The Afghan government has said it wants a ceasefire first.
It is doubtful the Taliban would agree to a truce first before getting what they want out of a political settlement. While in talks with the US, the Taliban continued violent attacks, leveraging these to underline their demands.
What the Taliban want out of a political settlement is unclear. In the past, they have denounced democracy as a western imposition on their vision of Afghanistan. They have dropped several hints of a return to the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan of 1996-2001. But they have signalled they may accept some of the democratic gains Afghanistan has made in the last two decades.
The expectation is that the two sides should agree on an “inclusive” interim government that will be entrusted with hammering out the way forward.
The Afghan government, a former Indian diplomat observed, “is entering the negotiations knowing that they are a death sentence on itself”. And while the US would like it done and dusted before President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in November, Ghani, who won a second term this year, would prefer to stretch it out until the US elections, hoping to get from a possible Biden White House the support that has not been forthcoming from Trump.
Who are representing the two sides?
Both sides have 21 persons each in their negotiating teams. The Taliban’s lead negotiator is Sheikh Abdul Hakim, a scholar-cleric from the non-military side who was the “chief justice” of the Taliban judicial system, and is seen as more acceptable to all factions within the Taliban, as well as to Pakistan. He is also said to be close to the Supreme Leader Hibataullah Akhundzada. Though Hakim’s name carries the Haqqani appellation in some mentions, he does not belong to the Haqqani Network. His unifying role will be crucial.
The dynamics between Pakistan and some of the key Taliban members are also important. The Pakistan Army and ISI played key roles in facilitating the US-Taliban agreement.
Mullah Baradar, who was released from ISI captivity under pressure from the US in 2018 to take part in the talks with Khalilzad, and is a signatory to the US-Taliban agreement, does not find mention in the list, though he is expected to play a role. Abbas Stanekzai, a hardliner close to the Pakistani security establishment, was earlier projected as lead negotiator but has been pushed to number 2.
The HN is represented by Anas Haqqani. Brother of HN leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, he and two other militants were released from prison in November 2019 in exchange for an American and an Australian hostages.
The government delegation is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, a former intelligence chief, but not all delegates are from the government. Four are women. They will be important to the process of safeguarding women’s rights, hard won over the last two decades. Civil society is represented. Overall, the team’s composition reflects the power play among various interests. Some owe allegiance to Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. The pro-Pakistan Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also represented through his son-in-law, Senator Ghairat Baheer.
The inaugural session of the talks will be attended also by Abdullah, acting foreign minister Mohamed Hanif Atmar, and two others from the government.
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What is India’s stake in all this?
New Delhi has not been involved in the process since it began two years ago, and while it has backed the Afghan government for an “Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process”, it has been marginal to even regional discussions. Partly, this is due to India’s diffidence about engaging in a process in which it sees Pakistan playing to install the Taliban as its proxy in Kabul, as the Taliban have links with terrorist groups that target India and Indian interests in Afghanistan. While India sees itself on shared ground with Iran on these concerns, Tehran had opened contacts with the Taliban.
India’s other big worry is that the vacuum created by the exit of the US may be filled by China. Wary of the Taliban’s links with Uighur radicals in the Afghan-bordering Xinjiang Autonomous Region, India is concerned that Beijing may use its proximity to Pakistan to insulate this vulnerable territory from these links. It has also begun building ties with the Taliban.
The other concern is the interest in Pakistan to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. In a commentary titled “China’s Strategic Assessment of Afghanistan”, Yun Sun, Director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre, wrote that Pakistan’s stepped up role in Afghanistan “will not only indirectly contribute to China’s influence but also potentially improve the negotiation positions of both Islamabad and Beijing vis-à-vis Washington… China sees its role in Afghanistan beyond the peace deal as cautious and flexible. It sees its role in Afghan security in three ways: as marginal in the sense that it is not a primary party to the conflict; as indispensable in the sense that China is a great power and a neighboring country that cannot be ignored; and as central in the sense that Chinese investment will be critical for the country’s future post-conflict reconstruction and economic development.”
At this moment in India-China relations, the possibility of an enhanced Chinese presence in Afghanistan, in combination with Pakistan and the Taliban, is worrying Afghan watchers in India.
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