After nearly three months of on and off talks the Taliban and the Kabul government have agreed on a preamble containing rules and procedures for coming negotiations between them. The preamble deals with stuff like what should form the basis of setting out the agenda for substantive talks.
An agreement to lay down procedures to discuss the country’s future governance is a major step forward for antagonists who have agreed on little during the last quarter of a century. Discussions on setting an agenda comes next. That such a basic step is heralded as a ‘breakthrough’ stresses wrenching negotiations when talks on setting agenda begin.
Going forward, the Kabul regime wants to discuss the ceasefire first while the Taliban want power sharing on top of the agenda. The negotiators nonetheless, confront a difficult history of centuries of rule by the tribal elite followed by an unprecedented political turmoil, fracturing the Afghan society, perhaps irreparably, since the overthrow of monarchy in 1973.
Intra-Afghan talks to begin
As the world waits in trepidation for the intra-Afghan talks to begin in earnest, some American actions could even upset the calculations and equation between the interlocutors. For example, Trump’s announcement of an early withdrawal of additional 2,000 American troops, weakening Kabul, has added another dimension to the forthcoming negotiations.
These troops were to be withdrawn in May 2021 but are now set leave in January, leaving a force of 2,500 behind. While the Taliban have welcomed the move, for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, it “has come too soon”. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned that the “price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high”.
The Pentagon, in the meantime has prepared drawdown plans keeping two larger and a few satellite bases operational in the post Trump era till the new administration takes next set of decisions based on the progress in intra-Afghan talks.
In keeping these bases for two core missions: aiding Afghan security forces and carrying out counterterrorism operations as General Mark Milley, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff said, places the US at odds with the Taliban with whom the US has agreed to withdraw all forces within 14 months of the signing of the US-Taliban agreement on February 29, 2020.
Funding for the future government
Of critical importance going forward is how will a future government of Afghanistan be funded and under what conditions. The donors under Afghanistan Partnership Framework (APF) in an agreement with the Kabul regime during a Geneva meeting — November 23-24 set up four-year aid cycle keeping at roughly the current annual support at $3.3 billion.
Laying down certain democracy and human rights expectations from the future Afghan government means that the donors economic leverage will loom large over the negotiating parties. Both sides know well that Afghan state cannot survive in its present form without foreign funding. Though it poses a bigger challenge for the Taliban, economic incentives could pressure both sides to reach a political settlement.
As the talks move on the next phase it seems likely that the Taliban will be able to extract more concessions from the Kabul regime than they will concede. This is not only due to their battlefield strength but also due to deeply conservative nature of the Afghan society. In practice, many, even though they are ‘odious’ of sitting with the Taliban, may well support some social practices proposed by them. It is also true that Taliban have evolved from what they were during their regime of late 1990s.
Transition to a political movement
In the areas they have governed during the last decade they have adjusted to some of the more acceptable norms of education, technology, and even allowing humanitarian services to continue. This is a testament to the change in political thinking they have undergone during the last twenty years. Their transition to a political movement will still pose a challenge.
Afghanistan needs peace. The country has been a battleground for warlords, religious fanatics and short-sighted politicians who have added to the mess, thus preventing a functional political system from taking root since the fall of monarchy. Before that too, the land is known for the “great games” empires played over it.
Every one of the great powers of its time — the Romans, the British, the Soviets and now the Americans had to beat a hasty retreat. No wonder Alexander the Great, one of history’s greatest generals, reportedly said, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghan.”
Major investments and developments like the Belt and Road Initiative await peace in Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan should benefit the Afghan people who are suffering from a perpetual war since 1979, when the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan. The future is now in the hands of the Kabul administration and the Taliban: either talk peace, or continue the endless cycle of violence.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and also served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s.