The talks in Doha between the Taliban and the Kabul regime that began seven months late on September 12 are in hiatus over disagreements on how to frame a code of conduct that will guide the broader talks. Their differences over the procedurals are wide. It is only after a framework is agreed that the two sides will come to tackle substantive issues like ceasefire, type of governance, power sharing, and a host of difficult issues that will need to be resolved.
Seeking to build support for ceasefire while the negotiations continue between the two sides, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was in Doha seeking Qatar’s offices in persuading Taliban for flexibility over ceasefire, power sharing or other knotty issues.
Earlier, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation — the body created to lead negotiations with the Taliban — visited Pakistan for similar purpose. Underscoring Pakistan’s central role in the peace process, Abdullah asked Pakistan’s powerful military to use its influence to press the Taliban to reduce violence.
Dr. Abdullah, a member of erstwhile Northern Alliance which led the 2002 putsch against the Taliban, a former foreign minister and three-time presidential candidate, retains a significant following especially among the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan. As Northern Alliance drew its support from powers antithetical to Pakistan, Dr. Abdullah’s public pronouncements reflected those interests. Recognising Pakistan’s centrality in the peacemaking process he is now ‘encouraged’ by the tone of his conversations in Pakistan.
The Taliban, who have fought their way from a rag tag group of resistance fighters to a formidable force have crafted clear positions and did not concede much ground on their fundamental objective of getting the US out of Afghanistan. They only reluctantly acquiesced to an intra-Afghan dialogue, representing ‘Afghan Groups.’
Now, when they have entered into negotiations, their focus remains on the nature of the state they want established, on power sharing, on how the government is to be sustained. Issues, which the western groups or the Kabul regime consider important like status of women, fundamental rights come secondary for them. Ceasefire, which is important for Kabul is the least important for them because they do not want to give away their battlefield advantage.
For Taliban, faith guides the state ideology and Sharia will be the ‘operative framework’ to run the affairs of the state. For Kabul, the country already has a constitution that holds Sharia above others thus making the character of the state sufficiently Islamic allowing for protecting women’s rights, freedom of expression and electoral democracy.
The Taliban understand that puritan application of Islamic injunctions during their previous regime during the late 1990s alienated them from virtually all countries. Influenced perhaps, by the public opinion their actions have indicated that they may be ready for compromises in certain areas. In break from their previous government policies they allow girls schools in areas under their control. This time the Taliban seem more inclined to let the systems evolve rather than impose it through a state diktat. Based on their objectives, Taliban seeks to draw their support from the communities they represent.
Whether the interlocutors agree to an interim arrangement before a new dispensation, power sharing is the most intractable issue. And here lies the dilemma for the Taliban political leadership. Having engaged the most powerful military for two decades, and compelling them to seek exit, Taliban interlocutors are looking at a lion’s share of power. The rank and file who gave away their lives and limbs for the principle of getting the ‘occupation forces’ out will be loath to leaving authority in the hands of others. Hoping for a ceasefire is therefore, a pipe dream. They are captives of their battle hardened psychological make up that anything less than total victory is surrender, which endangers the movement’s unity.
The alignment of political positions that either side holds is likely to be slow. There will be stalemates or even walk outs in frustration. Pushing the interlocutors to hasten the process will produce results that either side may not be fully committed to hold. The outside powers should let Afghan interlocutors to move at the pace they are comfortable with, to arrive at a durable peace. After all Vietnam’s formal peace negotiations dragged through 1968 to January 1973 when the peace agreement was signed.
The western concept of democracy is America’s deadliest export. There are several failed and costly experiments like Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and many more — countries where people belong to a different culture. It is time Western powers realise that ‘their democracy’ is not the best governance system for people with totally different history and ethos. Peaceful transition in Afghanistan will only hold if it is supported by the conservative elements who hold a sway over the Afghan society.
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 in Dubai during mid 1990s.