Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently passed the order to release the remaining batch of 400 Afghan Taliban prisoners, thus removing the final hurdle for the start of the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks in Doha, Qatar. The February 29 peace accord between the Taliban and the United States (US) had pledged to release 5,000 insurgent prisoners. Earlier,Taliban had declared they would not start talks unless all their remaining prisoners are released.[i]
One of the major stumbling blocks on the way was the decision over six inmates in government custody; namely Hekmatullah, Sayed Rasul, Gul Ali, Mohammad Daud, Allah Mohammad and Naqibullah, whose release was opposed by foreign allies.[ii] The French and Australian officials confirmed in recent days that they were opposed to certain prisoners being released, without specifying how many.[iii] France asked the Afghan Government not to proceed with the release of several terrorists convicted in an attack on French forces in Sarobi district of Kabul province in 2008, in which 10 French soldiers were killed.[iv] The Australian Government had been in touch with Washington and the Afghan government asking them not to free one of the prisoners, Hekmatullah, convicted of killing Australian nationals in Afghanistan.
In August 2020, the Government convened a three day Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders, to decide on issues of high significance. The consultative assembly passed a resolution to approve the release of the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners, “in order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public.”[v] It is apparent that American pressure also played its part in the decision. As the election fever begins to grip the US, it is obvious that the Trump administration wants no further delay in its plan to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. As per recent reports, the number of US troops has now dropped to approximately 8,600 from about 13,000 and five bases have been closed in Afghanistan.[vi] US Secretary of Defense Mike Esper recently said that Washington will bring home another 3,600 soldiers by November, leaving less than 5,000 in Afghanistan.[vii]The complete withdrawal of the US troops is however linked to an intra-Afghan agreement on a future political set-up.
Interestingly, the Taliban recently made announcements about some changes in their negotiating team. Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob (son of the late supreme leader Mullah Omar), who was in charge of the Taliban military operations and is known for his reputation as a hardliner has been brought into the negotiating team. The new Taliban team also includes Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the insurgent group, who was released last year by the Afghan Government in exchange for two Americans and one Australian national held by the Taliban.[viii] The former chief justice of the ousted Taliban regime has also been included in the team that is led by the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Lead Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told the Associated Press that “Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada hand-picked the 20 member team, 13 of whom comprise about half of Taliban’s leadership council.”[ix] Meanwhile, according to reports[x], a six-member delegation of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar led by Mullah Baradar travelled to Pakistan to ‘consult’ with Pakistani and Chinese officials on Afghan peace. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman stated that “the peace process, the Afghan refugee issue in Pakistan, as well as creating facilities for trade relations between the two countries, will be the topics of the delegation’s meeting with Pakistani officials.”[xi]
On the Afghan Government side, while former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah would direct the peace negotiations with the Taliban, the Afghan team in the talks would reportedly be led by Masoom Stanekzai, a former head of the Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security. He would be reporting to and take direction from a Council headed by Dr. Abdullah. There are talks about a possibility of a change in the negotiating team from the Afghan Government’s side and that a representative of minorities will be added to the delegation. Over all, the High Council for National Reconciliation indicated-“The negotiation team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is fully ready for intra-Afghan negotiations.”[xii]
Since the signing of the peace accord with the US earlier this year, the Taliban have intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces. While the expectations had been rising that negotiations could soon begin, waves of fresh attacks[xiii] in Afghanistan by the Taliban keep punctuating the headlines. To keep the peace process on track, several heinous attacks by the insurgent group have been overlooked and faintest progress (the Eid Ceasefire, for example) has often been touted as the harbinger of a breakthrough. Today, there is hardly any talk about the largely unreciprocated concessions that went in to get the Taliban on the negotiating table and the group’s refusal to acknowledge the Afghan Government as its principal interlocutor has had to be finessed.[xiv] So far, during discussions in various venues, the Taliban negotiators have not reportedly revealed any flexibility on any significant issue. In seeking a ceasefire and agreeing on a prisoner exchange, Kabul seems to have offered the compromises.
The Taliban’s deliberate ambiguity about their political agenda has added to the overall sense of confusion. There has been no clarity on whether or not the group would be willing to work within a democratic political and constitutional set-up. Eminent scholar, Marvin G. Weinbaum[xv]argued that “the problem in trying to advance a peace process lies not in an absence of trust or the work of spoilers but from there being two vastly dissimilar, competing visions of an Afghan end-state”. Another significant cause of concern is the protection of women’s rights to education and work. In an open letter to the Taliban, published in the Tolo News,Afghan women expressed that they “worry that the price of peace may be too heavy” if they “lose the vitality of more than half of Afghanistan’s population and the essential gains achieved in the last two decades”.[xvi]
In a scenario where two sides have long been locked in war for forty years, it is not easy to negotiate peace and agree to a political transition. Therefore, the latest development clearing the way for the intra-Afghan talks is a significant development. Both sides will now have to compromise to find a political solution to the festering Afghan conflict. In his recent article[xvii] Weinbaum, however, expressed his scepticism over “a grand bargain about to be reached around a table” and stated that “the clash is thus not so much a power struggle as a collision of values, the kind of conflict that history has shown ends not with compromise but inevitably with one side dictating the outcome.”
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
[i]“Taliban says ready for talks next month if prisoner swap complete”. Al Jazeera, July 24, 2020. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/taliban-ready-talks-month-prisoner-swap-complete-200723161554074.html(Accessed on 21.8.2020)
[ii] Sayed Sharif Amiri, “Obstacles to Talks will be removed soon: Sources”. The Tolo News, August 23, 2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/obstacles-talks-will-be-removed-soon-sources(Accessed on 21.8.2020)
[iii] Abdul Qader Sediqi, “Australia, France object to release of Final Taliban Prisoners”. Reuters, August 17, 2020. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-prisoners/australia-france-object-to-release-of-final-taliban-prisoners-officials-idUSKCN25D1MQ(Accessed on 21.8.2020)
[v] “Afghan President agrees Taliban prisoner release”. Al Jazeera, August 9,2020. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/afghan-president-agrees-taliban-prisoner-release-200809063717608.html(Accessed on 21.8.2020)
[vi]Kathy Gannon, “Number of American troops in Afghanistan drops to 8,600 as Taliban make big changes ahead of expected talks”. The Military Times, July 19, 2020. Available at:https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/07/19/number-of-american-troops-in-afghanistan-drops-to-8600-as-taliban-make-big-changes-ahead-of-expected-talks/(Accessed on 22.8.2020)
[vii]Rahim Faiez and Kathy Gannon, “Afghan Council frees Taliban Prisoners to setting up peace talks”. The Washington Post, August 9, 2020. Available at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/traditional-council-frees-taliban-setting-up-peace-talks/2020/08/09/a0890c2a-da0b-11ea-a788-2ce86ce81129_story.html(Accessed on 21.8.2020)
[viii] Zahid Hussain, “Intra-Afghan Peace Talks”.DAWN, August 12,2020. Available at:https://www.dawn.com/news/1573992?fbclid=IwAR1Q-54oDcBAzdteTODz1nszxYejp-E_ZAUuu-Gsi3bmRZbq2IRWzlaeIjo(Accessed on 22.8.2020)
[ix] “Taliban has finalised negotiating team for intra-Afghan talks”. Al Jazeera, August 24,2020. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/taliban-finalised-negotiating-team-intra-afghan-talks-ap-200824040953615.html(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[x] “Pakistan invites Taliban, China to discuss Afghan Peace”. The Tolo News, August 24, 2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/pakistan-invites-taliban-china-discuss-afghan-peace(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[xii] Sayed Sharif Amiri, “Obstacles to Talks will be removed soon: Sources”. Op. cit
[xiii]“Afghanistan officials: Taliban Truck bomb, other attacks kill 12”, Deccan Herald August 24,2020. Available at:https://www.deccanherald.com/international/world-news-politics/afghanistan-officials-taliban-truck-bomb-other-attacks-kill-12-877614.html?fbclid=IwAR1NQoMrsggjkanal5bW536ugJtqA5ABMfeWaQfQ0V_Ryz_FvBI1RknU2A0(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[xiv] “Taliban doesnot recognize Afghan government”.The Tolo News,August 15,2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/taliban-doesn%E2%80%99t-recognize-afghan-govt-statement?fbclid=IwAR2B9ndHPCfd7faeTZ65XWCTh4Fw7WD0DesCUk75GHvaT4by9oqeuZuy7hs(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[xv]Marvin G. Weinbaum,”The Taliban Know Afghanistan’s Peace Negotiations End In an Islamic Emirate”.The National Interest, August15, 2020. Available at:https://nationalinterest.org/blog/middle-east-watch/taliban-know-afghanistans-peace-negotiations-end-islamic-emirate-166914?fbclid=IwAR2uPM41wqGL7grh0JX9LtjRm3cKiFdirpVqRXhRoko9EmEFe01uJP6Rca8(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[xvi]“Open Letter by Afghan Women to Taliban”.The TolO News, August 13,2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/opinion/open-letter-afghan-women-taliban-0(Accessed on 24.8.2020)
[xvii]Marvin G. Weinbaum,”The Taliban Know Afghanistan’s Peace Negotiations End In an Islamic Emirate”. Op.cit.