Peace talks on Afghanistan — some hope, some doubts
As millions of impoverished Afghans are anxiously waiting for some breakthrough on the commencement of intra-Afghan talks, there is an eerie sense of indifference to the whole idea of peace negotiations as far as the Kabul government is concerned. The latest excuse offered is that the Taliban should not insist on the release of 600 militants in government custody. As Kabul claims, these prisoners were involved in crimes and upon their release, could resume criminal activity.
According to the historic peace agreement signed by the United States with the Taliban on Feb. 29 this year, the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban inmates in exchange for 1,000 government prisoners. So far, more than 4,000 militants have been freed by Kabul and 600 by the Taliban. That is a good progress considering the odds and huge difficulties in the backdrop of which both sides are operating. Now the last phase of the prisoner release should not be allowed to obstruct the whole peace process. Both sides would be expected to show flexibility and keep mind the restoration of peace and putting an end to the conflict.
The lukewarm attitude demonstrated by Kabul is understandable since in consequence of an intra-Afghan agreement, the incumbent government would have to be shown the door. Ashraf Ghani’s administration would use every weapon in its armory to prolong the status quo that guarantees them rule over the country for full five years. They are well-equipped in terms of constitutional protection because they a product of an election and have a mandate of the people, howsoever disputed that may appear.
Negotiations are continuing to break the impasse. There is some hope of the two sides beginning to start talking to each other in Doha, Qatar, very soon. A reason for optimism is the relentless US pressure upon Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for agreeing to kickstart the long-awaited talks without further delay. Abdullah would lead the pro-government group in talks with the Taliban.
On the other hand, the Taliban are also under pressure not only from the masses but also from within their own organization. The people are genuinely tired of the unending conflict. The Taliban want to show some progress to demonstrate their commitment to peace and reconciliation. They also want to speed up the process before discord and disunity should harm the credibility of their leadership. Now is the time, some Taliban leaders assert, that they could speak with one voice and get closer to the goal of an Islamic emirate.
Would the Taliban agree to become mainstreamed within the existing system which is based on the outcome of an election and existence of a parliament? Would Kabul be a party to any formula that would negate the status of an elected government?
Rustam Shah Mohmand
Ghani's government at such a critical time should not be raising issues of a group of prisoners more dangerous than others. Because as time passes there are more deadly attacks on Afghan and coalition forces, causing large-scale casualties, also among civilians.
This uptick in violence is threatening the whole peace process in which the US has made such an enormous investment over the last year. And here is an important point: Any further escalation in violence would encourage the opponents of reconciliation to raise their voices against the whole process. Such voices would emanate from the US — coming from some members of Congress who don't favor reconciliation with the Taliban, and from within the Afghan government. The weight of such formidable opposition to the peace process in the context of unending Taliban attacks would increase forcing another reappraisal of the whole project. If violence continues to increase, the Kabul government would happily incorporate this factor in their resistance to an agreement with the Taliban.
Even if the talks begin, there are huge obstacles that lie ahead.
Would the Taliban agree to become mainstreamed within the existing system which is based on the outcome of an election and existence of a parliament? Would Kabul be a party to any formula that would negate the status of an elected government? What are the common grounds for any settlement?
There is also another contentious issue lurking in the corner. The issue of a ceasefire as a prelude to a settlement. Inevitably, there would be a demand on the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire pending the outcome of negotiations. Some in the Taliban ranks would not agree, because it is believed than any cessation of hostilities would make their field soldiers lose motivation. No militant group would ever permit such blow.
The only hope lies in the convening of a loya jirga (grand assembly) that would approve the formation of an interim government. Such a government would be multi-ethnic, broad-based and would include, besides other groups, the Taliban. The loya jirga could approve certain amendments to the Constitution. A Taliban-dominated interim government would help in ending the conflict. Such a government would have the capacity to and support of the people to defeat and annihilate militant outfits such as the Daesh and Turkistan Islamic Movement.
A reconciliation based on objective realities is the only guarantee for a sustainable peace, and for an end to the agony of a population of more than 38 million people.
For all this to happen, the US pressure on both sides will be crucial. The warning to withdraw forces and reduce financial assistance would have to be real. Those raising voices against a "speedy withdrawal" are not aware of the realities of Afghanistan’s politics and history. Surprisingly even Islamabad is lending its weight against the idea of a quick troop pullout by the US.
Any alternative to the scheme of things outlined above would not only deepen the uncertainty but also help expand the conflict to unmanageable levels, causing chaos and further destruction.
– Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.