The much expected Afghan peace process, agreed under the US-Taliban agreement signed on 29 February, 2020 seemingly hit another bump when the Taliban initially rejected the 21 member negotiating team announced on 27 March by the Ashraf Ghani regime.
Ghani has installed himself as president after being declared winner in a bitterly contested elections. The Taliban said that they will only negotiate with a team that “conforms with our agreements and is constituted in accordance with the laid out principles.” (Update: Afghanistan has begun its first face-to-face talks with the Taliban on exchanging thousands of prisoners)
Afghanistan’s problems of governance may just be beginning. There is so much to resolve among various factions before healing can begin
Progress on negotiations was slow because the Kabul government had earlier refused to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before beginning of “intra-Afghan negotiations.” and also due to dispute between Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah over the rigged elections.
Both have declared themselves as president of Afghanistan. Ghani agreed to conditionally release 1,500 before the talks begin.
Dr. Abdullah, a Northern Alliance member, which led the military campaign against the Taliban, feels robbed of the presidency after three successive elections under disputed votes. As a Tajik he draws his support from north and west of the country, while for Ghani, a Pashtun, support base lies in east and south of Afghanistan.
Deeply worried at the adverse impact of their dispute on the American withdrawal, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, made a surprise visit to Kabul on 23 March hoping to persuade them to work together.
Failing in his attempt, Secretary Pompeo cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan and issued a harshly worded statement reprimanding both Ghani and Abdullah for failing to reach a compromise and thereby impeding intra-Afghan talks. The announcement shows how desperate the US is to get its troops out and the extent to which its patience is wearing thin.
The negotiating process remains complicated as the Taliban do not recognise the Kabul regime whom they still brand as “puppets.” The dialogue is thus with the “Afghan sides.” This leaves a lot of leverage with the Taliban to interpret the meaning of the term.
Afghanistan's fractured polity
In addition to the Taliban and the Kabul leadership, various ethnic groups, religious groups, warlords and other strongmen are a part of conflict and its resolution. Afghanistan has been in strife before the Soviet intervention in 1979, followed by civil war, the Taliban rule and the post 9/11 resistance against the American occupation.
It will need a miracle to unite most groups, tribes, ethnicities, and other factions on one platform to negotiate with the Taliban. The US, in such a situation is more likely to cut its losses and extricate leaving the Taliban to take charge of a divided house.
Taliban should also be keen to start the intra-Afghan talks as the US has committed to reviewing both its own sanctions and working with other UN members to review sanctions against them as the talks start.
Meantime the Taliban have begun their military operations specifically against the Afghan security forces. Demonstrating an apparent understanding with the Americans they have refrained from taking any offensive action against the US forces who have started withdrawing from Afghanistan.
US troop reduction
Under the agreement, the US is obliged to bring the force level down to 8,600 within 135 days of the agreement and also make a proportional reduction of coalition troops by that time.
The Taliban, are likely to maintain their approach, disallowing an opportunity to US to hold their troops withdrawal in abeyance. Their aim would be to use Trump’s domestic compulsion to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan completely within 14 months, which will significantly weaken Kabul.
Ghani regime will in the meantime, try and extract as much concessions from the Taliban as they can. And if the intra-Afghan talks do not go anywhere, and the Americans gone, the Taliban will most likely use their offensive power to force their terms and wrest Kabul’s control.
Pertinently western style participatory democracy does not blend well with the Afghanistan’s tribal culture. This is even demonstrated by the most recent presidential elections where only 2 million people turned up to vote out of the 9.7 million registered voters. The Afghans do not have a concept of power sharing. It is a winner take all society.
Afghanistan’s problems of governance may just be beginning. There is so much to resolve among various factions before healing can begin. The Taliban, who have demonstrated tenacity, have seemingly changed too from their earlier avatar.
This may also be a challenge for the international community to come forward and help sustain peace in the interest of people of Afghanistan and the region.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 2009-2017.