Afghanistan: Talking about Talking

At the time of writing (September 20, 2020), over eight days have passed, but the formal talks between the Afghanistan Government and the Taliban have not yet begun. During this period, the negotiating teams of both sides have held three meetings in Doha, Qatar. Another five meetings have been held between the Contact Groups of both the sides.

Significantly, the opening ceremony of the Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) were held in Doha, Qatar, on September 12, 2020, leading to the first ever official meeting of the Taliban and the Afghanistan Government. On the same day, the two sides formed their respective Contact Groups. Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Nader Nadery, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, Fawzia Koofi, Enayatullah Baligh, Mohammad Natiqi and Khalid Noor are the seven members of the Contact Group representing Afghanistan. The Taliban’s Contact Group members are Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, Abbas Stanekzai, Noorullah Noori, Shaikh Delawar and Shaikh Qasim. The Contact Groups were reportedly formed to decide on an agenda, the code of conduct and a due date for the first round of the IAN.

It is pertinent to recall here that, according to the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban, the IAN was scheduled to start from March 10, 2020. However, it has taken over six months for the two sides to hold the first ceremonial meeting on September 12, 2020.

The over six months delay to start the process was inevitable, given the distrust between the Taliban and the Afghanistan Government. Reports indicate that the ongoing delay is because of the disagreement between the two sides over ‘key issues’, including religious matters.

Indeed, on September 19, 2020, the Taliban asserted that establishment of an Islamic system in the country is a focal point of all discussions. In the weekly comment section of its official website Voice of Jihad, the Taliban stated,

The reality of the situation is that an Islamic system is not simply the demand of the Islamic Emirate but of every individual of our nation because nearly one hundred percent of the Afghan population believes in the noble religion of Islam – not only rhetorically but adhere to all rules of Islam practically…

…It is not only the Islamic Emirate and the Afghan nation that deems the establishment of an Islamic system an obligation, rather many figures present and representing the opposition at the negotiation table who had memberships in Jihadi factions a few decades earlier could perhaps remember, if they choose to dig deep enough into their memories, that an Islamic system was also a central pillar of their charter only thirty years earlier… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan believes that all issues of our people can only be solved with the establishment of an Islamic system…

In the previous edition of a weekly comment, published on September 12, 2020, the Taliban had stated,

The Islamic Emirate believes that after the resolution of the external dimension, it is entirely possible for the Afghans to come together and live their future under the shade of a sovereign Islamic government… In our view, intra-Afghan negotiations can only succeed once all parties set their Islamic and national values as a barometer for resolving issues. Since these negotiations are among Afghans, they must be kept pure from all foreign meddling, ideologies and values. Our own religious and national values that are already adopted by our people should not be sacrificed for foreign imported ideas.

On the same day, delivering his speech at the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan negotiations held in Doha, Deputy of ‘Islamic Emirate’ and Chief of Political Office of the Taliban, Mullah Baradar Akhund had stated that the aim of IAN is to “establish an Islamic government”:

I urge both teams present in this gathering to give precedence to the higher interests of our sacred religion of Islam… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan reassures its oppressed nation that we shall proceed with sincerity in these intra-Afghan negotiations in order to afford our Muslim nation an opportunity to live a peaceful, tranquil and prosperous life.

Evidently, the Taliban’s position is that nothing less than an agreement over the establishment of an Islamic State in Afghanistan is acceptable within IAN.
On the other hand, the Afghanistan Government is very much against this proposal. On September 17, Acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid asserted,

Now the time is over that the women of Afghanistan, Afghan girls in the bazaar or streets or stadiums are whipped. Afghan women in the past two decades have become pilots, doctors, teachers, ministers and deputies.
He was referring to the Taliban’s harsh five years of Islamic rule between 1996 and 2001, when girls were banned from education and women from outdoor activities.

Another major issue of contention is the cease-fire agreement. The Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, in his remarks at the opening ceremony of the IAN held in Doha, had demanded an agreement over a permanent ceasefire, declaring that we can bring “happiness to each Afghan’s home” assuring “success of the current negotiations, announcing a permanent ceasefire, and ending the war”. He added further,

Not only the Afghan nation, but also well-meaning friends around the world expect us to put an end to violence, agree to a ceasefire as soon as possible… We seek a humanitarian ceasefire to be announced. The ceasefire will allow us to provide humanitarian and developmental assistances to all our people in all regions of Afghanistan.

Similarly, Acting Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar announced, “To achieve a lasting peace, we consider the ceasefire a fundamental step.”

The Taliban, on the other hand, has remained adamant that it will not agree to a ceasefire. In an interview with the Tolo News on September 16, 2020, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem has said that the group will not agree to a ceasefire unless the peace negotiators can discuss the main cause of the war in the country at the negotiating table. He argued,

It does not make sense to end 20 years of war in one hour. In our perspective, it will be logical to discuss the main aspects of the problems and the war and then finalize a ceasefire so that the problem is resolved permanently. Suppose, if we announce a ceasefire today, but then we fail to reach an agreement at the negotiating table tomorrow, do we go toward the war again? What does this mean?
He also claimed that the Taliban has reduced the level of violence with the start of the preliminary round of the talks.

Rejecting Naeem’s claim, Acting Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid noted, on September 17, that despite the ongoing talks in Doha, the fighting had increased: “The enemies achieve nothing in their attacks, and just take casualties… the enemy should stop thinking that it can collapse the Afghan army again on orders from Punjab (Pakistan).”

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), between September 12 and September 20, Afghanistan recorded at least 183 fatalities including three civilians, 35 Security Force personal and 145 terrorists, in Taliban-led violence. During the earlier corresponding period (September 3-11), Afghanistan 237 fatalities were recorded, including six civilians, four SF personnel, 224 terrorists, and three Not Specified. These numbers suggest that despite a slight short-term deceleration in violence, there is no significant change in strategic intent or capacities of the Taliban.

Indeed, the possibility of the success of the talks faces severe challenges. On September 17, 2020, Abdullah Abdullah rightly observed that “these talks will be very hard” and “we will face issues that will need hard decisions to be made.” Earlier on September 11, 2020, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had stated that “there are difficulties, significant challenges on the way to reaching agreement”.

Indeed, there are issues which have the potential to push the talks into a deadlock. Though a beginning has been made, the end is very far and very uncertain.