It is a historic moment, for this is the first time the Taliban, which does not recognise the Afghan government, will sit across the table with government and other delegates to discuss the future of the country.
After the Afghan government released the last batch of six Taliban prisoners on Thursday, both Kabul and the Taliban announced they would begin direct “intra-Afghan” talks on September 12 in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The talks are the next step after the US-Taliban agreement on the withdrawal of US troops from the country. It is a historic moment, for this is the first time the Taliban, which does not recognise the Afghan government, will sit across the table with government and other delegates to discuss the future of the country. An assassination attempt on Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh, the second in two years, that targeted his convoy and ended up killing 10 bystanders on September 9, was widely seen as a bid to derail the talks. Saleh, a former Afghan intelligence head, who has been an opponent of talking to the Taliban but has reluctantly gone along with it, has said it will be “one of the most difficult peace negotiations in history”.
The intra-Afghan talks (IAT) were originally scheduled to begin on March 10. But the Afghan government, excluded from the negotiations between the US and the Taliban, held out on the commitment made by the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad as a pre-condition for releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, especially as there was no “reduction of violence” as the Taliban had promised the US. Instead, the months following the February 29 agreement saw a huge spike in attacks and bombings.
Under US pressure, the government of President Ashraf Ghani began to free Taliban prisoners from May onward. For the release of the last 400 prisoners who were involved in heinous crimes, President Ashraf Ghani called a loya jirga last month for a go-ahead. The government began releasing the prisoners late last month. In return, the Taliban released 1,000 government-side prisoners including ANF prisoners. The tussle over the release of the last few prisoners, accused of involvement in the killings of American, European and Australian nationals, were also the reason why talks could not be held earlier.
The withdrawal of American troops has taken place alongside. In its February 29 agreement with the Taliban, the US had agreed 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 troop levels from 8,600 to 4,500 by late October or early November, around the time of the US presidential elections, which has been the time table for this process from the start.
What to expect from the talks?
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.”
The intra-Afghan talks are likely to be protracted. The progress and outcomes will remain mired in uncertainty.
If the two main goals are a political power-sharing settlement between the Afghan polity and the Taliban, and a ceasefire, the question that will have to be dealt with first is which should come first on the agenda. The Afghan government has stressed it wants a ceasefire first before anything else.
“The ceasefire will be the first item of the agenda when direct discussions—negotiations between the delegation of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban begin, now we will see what the Taliban truly believe, unfortunately, peace is not been socialised among their commanders and among their fighters, so its an important juncture and I hope they will make the right choice,” President Ghani said in a recent interview to the British newspaper The Times.
But it is doubtful if 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 had stepped up violence to leverage their demands, keeping up their armed campaign, and taking control of vast swathes of territory.
The specifics of what the Taliban want out of a political settlement are also unclear. In the past, the Taliban have denounced democracy and democratic elections as western constructs that have no place in their vision of Afghanistan. They have dropped several hints of a return to the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan of 1996-2001, their preferred name for themselves and Afghanistan. But since the talks with the US, they have signalled they may accept some of the democratic gains that Afghanistan has made in the last two decades, but have made no commitments. They have also spoken of drafting a new Constitution.
The initial 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 all to be done and dusted before President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in November, Ghani, who won a second term as President earlier this year, would prefer to stretch it out till the November US elections, hoping to get from a possible Biden White House the support that has not been forthcoming from President Donald Trump.
Who are the negotiators in these talks?
Both sides have drawn up a list of 21 persons each for their respective negotiating teams. The Taliban has named Sheikh Abdul Hakim as its lead negotiator. The list was finalised in the first week of September. Some of the names are in line with Pakistan’s expectations. The Pakistan Army, ISI played key roles in facilitating the US-Taliban agreement.
Mullah Baradar, who was imprisoned by the ISI for eight years, and was released under pressure from the US in 2018 to take part in the talks with Khalilzad and signed the US-Taliban agreement will not lead the team.
The composition of the Afghan team reflect tensions within the top leadership of the Taliban, especially in the absence of an overriding commander in the manner of the late Mullah Omar or of his successor, the late Mohammed Mansoor, and the dynamics between some of the key members with Pakistan. Baradar’s relations with Pakistan, for instance, remain complicated. He is seen by ISI as too independent minded.
Taliban Supreme leader Hibataullah Akhundzada had earlier announced that their side would be led by hardliner Abbas Stanekzai. Though close to the Pakistani security establishment, Stanekzai was bumped down to number 2 as perhaps he is not seen as pious enough by Taliban standards for the lead role.
On the other hand, Sheikh Abdul Hakim, an elderly scholar-cleric, is a “real Talib”. He was the “chief justice” of the Taliban judicial system, is seen as above the fray, more acceptable to all factions within the Taliban, as well as to Pakistan. He is not from the military side of the Taliban. He is also said to be close to the Supreme Leader, though he is similar to him in some ways.
Though Hakim’s name carries the Haqqani appellation in some mentions, he does not belong to the Haqqani network. He could hold the Taliban together through what is likely to be a complex period in its existence.
The Haqqani Network is represented by Anas Haqqani, who in the words of an Afghanistan watcher in India, has “walked in straight from Kabul jail to the negotiating table”. The younger brother of Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, he and two other militants were released from prison by the Afghan government in November 2019 in exchange for an American and an Australian who were being held hostage by the Taliban.
The Afghan government’s side is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, a former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security. Not all representatives are from the government. Four of the delegates are women, who will be important to the process of safeguarding women’s rights, hard won over the last two decades. There is civil society representation. Overall, the team’s composition reflects the power play and the tug-of-war between various interests within the Afghan polity. Some in the delegation owe allegiance to Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah, who was appointed head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. The pro-Pakistan Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also represented in the team 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, the President’s Special Representative on Peace Affairs Abdul Salam Rahimi, and State Minister for Peace Affairs, Syed Sa’adat Mansour Naderi.
How does India see these talks?
Delhi has been barely 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 a marginal player, and has not been a participant even in regional discussions on the process. Part of this is India’s own diffidence about engaging with a process in which it sees Pakistan playing to install the Taliban as its proxy in Kabul. From the Indian point of view, this could lead to vitiating the regional security situation, as the Taliban have links with terrorist groups that target India and Indian interests in Afghanistan. India sees common cause with Iran, which is also wary of a Taliban return. But while Teheran had opened contacts with Taliban to secure its own interests, India has not.
Khalilzad has visited India three or four times in this period to keep Delhi in the loop. The US diplomat has been wary of “spoilers” who could upset Trump’s plan for a quick exit from Afghanistan, in time for the elections. Recently, Khalilzad suggested that India must engage directly with the Taliban so as to contribute to the peace efforts , and in this way could take up any security concerns with them. Delhi is firm it will not engage with the Taliban until it joins the Afghan political mainstream. Instead it has pointed to safe havens in Afghanistan to Pakistani terrorists who target India.
Delhi is also certain that there will be no peaceful outcomes for Afghanistan or the region from the talks. One former diplomat has described the whole process as a train hurtling towards its own wreckage.
Delhi’s other big concern, one that has begun to emerge more strongly in recent weeks as the situation at the LAC in Ladakh becomes serious, is that the vacuum created by the exit of the US may be filled by China – with or without Pakistan’s help. One reason for China to get involved is to keep control over its own restive, Muslim-majority Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan.
The other is that both China and Pakistan have expressed eagerness to bring Afghanistan into CPEC. China has made modest investments in Afghanistan, notably in the Aynak copper mines and in oil exploration.