Taliban prisoner release
Taliban prisoners being released from Pul-e-Charkhi jail in Kabul, Afghanistan (August 13, 2020) paving the way for negotiations between the warring sides in Afghanistan’s protracted conflict Image Credit: AP

With the release of last 400 Taliban prisoners by the Kabul regime, the stage seems set for the beginning of Intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul representatives.

The first round of talks will most likely be in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office.

President Ashraf Ghani’s order to release the last remaining Taliban followed the recommendation of the Loya Jirga — a traditional Council of Elders, who were called to debate the issue and advise the Kabul government. Claiming they were criminals, Ghani had earlier said that he had no authority under the law to release them.

Taliban insistence on the release of all the named prisoners left the Kabul regime with no other choice. The Loya Jirga was only the face saver for Ghani.

The Taliban have done a major reshuffle and have added several powerful figures in the negotiating team that demonstrates their seriousness to negotiate the end of war and establishment of an acceptable government in Kabul

- Sajjad Ashraf

Ashraf Ghani had earlier maintained that the release of prisoners would be a subject of negotiations between the interlocutors from either side. He had his negotiations and yet, Ghani was compelled to do exactly what the US-Taliban accord said.

Confidence building measure

The initial prisoner swap, a “confidence building measure’ was to be completed by March 10 and intra-Afghan negotiations were to follow. The process was delayed by over five months.

Under the commitment signed by the US this is to be followed by the release of “all remaining prisoners over the course of subsequent three months.”

For the Taliban the start of the dialogue was crucial because the US has committed to first remove sanctions on members of the Taliban by April 27 and then to work with other UN member states to remove the UN sanctions against them by May 29, 2020.

Though the process is about 5 months behind schedule these moves will signal the acceptance of Taliban as a normal political movement and will officially lift the stigma of ‘a terrorist organisation.’

For its part the US has brought the number of its troops down to 8,600 and has vacated five military bases. US Coalition partners have also proportionately reduced their numbers.

The US plans to reduce the number of its troops down to “less than 5,000” by end November, per Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

The Taliban have, in the meantime, stuck to their promise of not attacking US or Nato forces but have continued to attack the Afghan military and other government targets.

US troops Afghanistan
US soldiers drive past Chinook helicopters at Bagram air base in this file image. Trump has pledged to draw down American troops in Afghanistan by roughly half before the November presidential election Image Credit: AFP

The Taliban’s next strategic goal is the ensure compliance of the US to withdraw the remaining troops and vacate bases within nine and a half months of the agreement. While the intra-Afghan dialogue can continue endlessly, complete withdrawal of foreign forces will strengthen the Taliban hand considerably during the negotiations.

More by the writer

The Taliban have done a major reshuffle and have added several powerful figures in the negotiating team that demonstrates their seriousness to negotiate the end of war and establishment of an acceptable government in Kabul. The reshuffle tightens control by the leader Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada.

Permanent and comprehensive ceasefire

And at the same time by putting Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar as head of the military wing, they have emphasised that notwithstanding negotiations, they will take their military potential seriously.

Once the talks begin the Kabul government, backed by the US, would aim for “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” Much could still go wrong. Taliban are unlikely to give up their ability to strike unexpectedly and use their battlefield strength as a leverage against the Kabul regime.

Agreeing on a lasting ceasefire while negotiations continue is a difficult task. Violence in Afghanistan may therefore, continue while the two parties negotiate.

As the two sides hold divergent views over the structure of the state, the new constitutional dispensation is expected to be a major issue. There are many more contentious issues like provisional power sharing or a transition government, rights of women and other fundamental issues that will need to be resolved.

A question of demobilisation of Taliban fighters and their possible integration into the existing force structure will also not be an easy one to resolve.

Afghan society is deeply conservative. Its unique culture is soaked in traditions that can easily be called medieval. No amount of guarantees prevail if these are contrary to practices sanctioned by culture and traditions.

The Americans and their surrogates in Kabul face an impossible task of changing the society through words written on a piece of paper, which will be called a ‘constitution.’ This society, like others needs to evolve at its own pace.

It is a society where “every foot of the ground is like a well of steel” said Alexander the Great nearly 2300 years ago.

Writing to his mother, Alexander admitted that “you have brought only one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called as Alexander”. The words of wisdom from one of history’s greatest generals ring true even today.

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 served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s.