Convergence or Divergence
Intra-Afghan Dialogue at a Decisive Point
Mairaj ul Hamid Nasri
Saturday, September 12, 2020 will be considered a momentous day in the history of the world, especially that of the United States and Afghanistan, and South Asia, for that matter. It was the historic day when the Afghan government and the Taliban began peace talks in the Qatari capital of Doha to end the decades-long war on the Afghan soil. The inaugural session was attended by high-level dignitaries of international community including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, and other officials from and representatives of countries including China, Pakistan, India, Norway, Germany, Spain, Finland, Japan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkey. The Kabul negotiating team comprised 21 members including 5 females and was led by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation while Taliban team was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of Taliban and a former Guantanamo Bay’s detainee.
The second session was held on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 for further deliberations on the subject. They discussed the agenda and protocol prepared by their respective working groups but the session ended without any fruitful conclusion. Contact groups from both sides were formed for coordination and contact by the negotiating teams. An agenda comprising 21 articles for future roadmap of the negotiations was set which was later reduced to 19.
In American scheme of things, both sides are expected to agree on an agreement as soon as possible. The political settlement with the Taliban was sine qua non for USA’s face-saving and respectful withdrawal from Afghanistan while apparently achieving ‘set goals’ during this era. In his famous 2017 speech, US President Donald Trump outlined three key areas that need to be addressed carefully for withdrawal from Afghanistan. These were: “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda” and the security threats “in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense”. So, after long discussions and talks in this backdrop, the peace deal was signed between Taliban and the United States on February, 29, 2020.
This deal paved the way for intra-Afghan dialogue that has now started in Doha under the auspices of the United States. Afghans are now supposed to decide for their future, whether they opt for peaceful coexistence and get rid of 40-year-long destructive war or go back to the times of civil war and once again turn Afghanistan into a theatre of bloodshed and destruction.
It seems very easy to conclude the results of the process but those who are privy to the political history of Afghanistan and deeply observe developments in the country know that it’s not a job to be completed in the near future; rather, it’s very difficult to bring all the stakeholders in Afghanistan on one page and if it is done through same old means, no one can guarantee that the parties will hold up to their promises. Since almost everything has been ruined by the prolonged war in Afghanistan, the mindset of Afghans should also change accordingly and they must avoid prolonging the war further. Instead, they should opt for a peaceful coexistence and focus on the points of convergence instead of pinning out the points for creating divergence. Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s group and Taliban are traditional rivals in Afghanistan, and they have fought bloody fights against each other but the time has changed now, and their interests have also changed. Time is ripe for coming together and opting for peaceful coexistence for the sake of lives of over 30 million Afghans.
The presence of high-level representatives of key regional players in the Doha session evinces their interest in political settlement. India’s role in Afghanistan and its approach towards Taliban is apparently right but its activities inside Afghanistan are otherwise. Amb. Khalilzad’s visit to New Delhi on September 15, 2020, indicates that the US wants India to be ready for playing a constructive role in the success of intra-Afghan dialogue. But, it is known to all that India is following the Chanakyan Mandala theory which says: “our neighbour is your natural enemy and the neighbour’s neighbour is your friend.” India has, thus, made all-out efforts to use Afghanistan against Pakistan time and again. But, at present, since the US wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, India has been intimated to be passive at least during this process. Amb. Khalilzad visited Islamabad the next day and reiterated that the intra-Afghan dialogue would not have been possible without Pakistan’s support—an acknowledgement of Pakistan’s sacrifices and services for restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the internal challenges faced by the Doha talks are also worsening. Taliban have continued their attacks; even First Vice President Amrullah Saleh was targeted in an assassination attempt– luckily he escaped the attack unharmed. This erodes the confidence of general public in Taliban. On the other side, Taliban too blame Kabul government for launching operations against their ground forces and commanders and claim that the attacks on Afghan forces are actually in retaliation to such actions of Dr Ghani administration.
So, given the precariousness and fluidity of the situation, both the sides need to be cautious and take confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the presence of credible guarantors during the process. There is no denying the fact that the status-quo protagonists will try to prolong the process employing various tactics—such elements in Ashraf Ghani administration make the lame excuses that they are an elected government and all must respect the mandate of the government. Nonetheless, the world knows better about the legitimacy of the mandate and of the incumbent government for that matter.
On the other hand, if the Taliban demand for restoration of their previous government of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that was toppled on October 12, 2001, it will also widen the gap between the negotiating parties. Thus, opting for sacrificing some of their core demands and coming together through points of convergence and avoiding points of divergence will prove be the master key to the success of the whole process. The spoilers should also be watched keenly as one negative comment or news may derail the whole process as was done back in July 2015 by announcing the death of Mullah Omer which derailed the Murree Peace Talks. The guarantors should have open, vigilant eyes for looking into the matters deeply, and consider the ground realities as well in the case of the negotiating parties. The aim should be achieving and restoring long-term stability and prosperity in Afghanistan for which the smaller interests may be sacrificed by looking into the matters as visionary and patriotic leaders and representatives.
The Author is a member of faculty of Department of Political Science, University of Malakand Chakdara, Dir Lower. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Afghan-Taliban peace talks: who, what, where and why
The US-Taliban agreement in February this year outlined the withdrawal of foreign forces from by May 2021 in exchange for peace guarantees and Taliban promises to open negotiations with the Afghan government, which the group had previously refused. For this purpose, the Afghan government and the Taliban have begun historic peace talks aimed at ending decades of war.
What are the talks about?
The first round remained largely administrative, leading to further rounds to broker a comprehensive peace deal to end the fighting. Negotiators will aim to set an agenda and may look for a ceasefire. A number of thorny issues will be addressed later. Key challenges for later rounds are: How to include the Taliban, who have vehemently opposed the legitimacy of the Kabul government, in any governing arrangement, and how to safeguard the rights of women and minorities who suffered under the previous Taliban rule.
Who is negotiating?
While US and Qatari officials helped kick of f the talks, negotiations will be between the Taliban and Afghan government teams, with Washington and other international powers helping to shepherd the process.
The Taliban team is headed by Abdul Hakim Haqqani, the Taliban`s former shadow chief justice, who also heads its powerful council of religious scholars whereas the Afghan government delegation is led by Masoom Stanekzai, a former chief of National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Doha, capital of the small Gulf Arab state of Qatar, is well-established neutral ground for the long-warring parties far from their conflict back home. It is where the US-Taliban agreement was negotiated and is the site of the Taliban’s Political Office, opened in 2012. The initial round of the talks has been scheduled for Doha, but further rounds could be moved to another country, possibly in Europe.