Stalemate continues in resumed intra-Afghan talks
Though the intra-Afghan negotiations resumed recently in Doha after a frustrating break of nearly two weeks, there is no word yet about any chance of an understanding even on certain basic issues such as the rules of procedures.
The talks began on September 12 amid hopes that progress could be achieved following the landmark peace agreement that the Taliban and US signed in Doha on February 29. It was felt there would be a sense of urgency as the talks had been delayed for more than six months due to a deadlock on the prisoners’ exchange issue. This didn’t happen as negotiations have yet to move forward and the stalemate could persist until after the Nov. 3 US presidential election, which could impact the course of the talks.
The recent rise in violence in Afghanistan as a result of a new Taliban offensive in Helmand and other provinces followed by an Afghan government counter-attack and US airstrikes has made it difficult to create the right conditions for talks.
Though Taliban negotiators led by Shaikh Abdul Hakeem and US officials headed by the US special envoy for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and the US-Nato military commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller met a number of times recently at Doha to reiterate their pledge to fully implement their agreement, the violence has continued causing the displacement of people, more so from Helmand’s capital, Lashkargah, which was the main target of the Taliban offensive.
The Taliban didn’t publicly object to US airstrikes as the Doha deal bound the group not to attack urban centres and let the Americans come to the rescue of Afghan forces if they came under attack.
On a previous occasion when the US carried out airstrikes against Taliban fighters in an almost similar situation, they conceded that Washington was justified in doing so. Such objectivity has raised hopes that Taliban remain committed to the terms of the Doha agreement even though the US and Kabul expected the group to reduce violence instead of escalating it by undertaking a new offensive.
Taliban justified the attacks in Helmand by arguing that these were aimed at re-occupying territory its fighters had lost some months ago.
There were reports that Khalilzad has been quietly mediating between the Taliban and Afghan government in a bid to overcome the impasse in the intra-Afghan talks. He also visited Pakistan to seek its help in persuading Taliban to agree to a ceasefire, or at least reduce violence.
Kabul wants reduction in violence even though its demand has always been for a permanent ceasefire. Taliban refuse to commit to a ceasefire until securing some concessions, as the use of force remains the group’s main weapon.
However, Taliban don’t seem ready yet to concede ground until some of the group’s core demands, particularly the issue of enforcing Shariah, or Islamic law, in Afghanistan, are accepted.
As part of Shariah, Taliban want the Hanafi jurisprudence of Sunni Muslims to prevail. The Afghan government, in which the Shiites have considerable influence, has reservations on the issue as it doesn’t want to alienate the Shiite Hazara ethnic community aligned to it.
According to Taliban and certain Afghan analysts, the Shiite viewpoint or Fiqh-i-Jafria as it is commonly known, was inserted into the law as a reward when the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks and the Hazaras, as part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, joined forces with it.
Iran’s recent statement supporting the Afghan Shiite stand has also generated controversy and criticized by many Afghans.
After years of suppression, the Shiite Hazaras have gradually made political gains in democratic Afghanistan on the strength of their numbers, which aren’t specifically known due to the lack of a proper census, and significant presence in the security forces.
Taliban know Hanafi jurisprudence cannot be imposed on the Afghan Shiites even if this was being done in the past, but the group isn’t yet ready to give up this condition in view of concern this could dent its Sunni base.
There are also other disagreements holding a breakthrough in negotiations. Kabul wants reduction in violence even though its demand has always been for a permanent ceasefire. Taliban refuse to commit to a ceasefire until securing some concessions, as the use of force remains the group’s main weapon.
Another bone of contention is the Taliban demand that the internationally recognized Doha agreement should serve as the basis for intra-Afghan negotiations to ensure continuation of the fledgling peace process.
Kabul wants the Afghan government-US declaration made public in Kabul on February 29, the day the Doha accord was inked, to be the basis of ongoing talks. It is also seeking to incorporate resolutions of the Consultative Loya Jirga, which was convened by President Ashraf Ghani to seek approval for the release of Taliban prisoners, in the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Taliban argue that the Kabul-US declaration wasn’t shared with the group and that the Loya Jirga decisions were made unilaterally for a specific purpose.
Taliban faced criticism for using Islam and the Quran for political purposes while Kabul was blamed for exploiting the issue to show Taliban in a bad light. The two sides have agreed to continue talking and fresh proposals have been made, but formal talks cannot begin until some of the fundamental disagreements are sorted out.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.