Not an easy road to Afghan peace
Zahid Hussain
The long-delayed negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that began in Doha last weekend hold out the best hope for the end of war in Afghanistan. It was indeed a historic moment when the two warring sides sat face to face for the first since start of the war some two decades ago.
It is the most critical phase of the Afghan peace process that began with the historic peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban in February this year. The talks, which were supposed to take place in March, finally took off the ground after release of the last batch of Taliban prisoners.
Although the talks opened on a positive note with both sides calling for peace and reconciliation, it’s going to be a tricky path to end the war. “The current conflict has no winner through war and military means, but there will be no loser if this crisis is resolved politically and peacefully through submission to the will of the people,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation that will direct the peace negotiations from the Kabul side.
Mullah Baradar the deputy chief of the Taliban also struck a conciliatory note saying that the insurgents would participate in the talks “with full sincerity,” as he urged both sides to exercise calm and patience.
Notwithstanding these solemn words, it is not going to be easy for the longtime enemies to achieve a political settlement that could be acceptable to all sections of Afghan society and restore peace in the war-torn country. Fighting raged on in different parts of the country as the two sides talked peace. The decades-long war has left hundreds and thousands of Afghans dead widening the gap that is hard, if not impossible, to mend.
In a situation where two sides have long been locked in war, it is never easy to negotiate peace and agree to a political transition. More importantly, the talks are taking place in an atmosphere of heightened hostilities. Since the signing of the peace accord with the US earlier this year, the Taliban have intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces in order to expand the areas under their influence. It also seems a part of Taliban strategy to gain advantage at the negotiating table.
Indeed, the stakes are high for both sides of the divide. While an agreement would raise the prospects for peace, a breakdown in talks could deepen the civil war. It is not just about a power-sharing arrangement; it is also about a future political system in the country and protection of fundamental rights of all sections of the population. The outcome of the talks would largely depend on whether or not the Taliban are willing to accept a pluralistic political order.
For negotiations to move forward, it will be imperative for the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and lower the level of hostilities. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will show the same degree of pragmatism as their leaders had done during peace negotiations with the US. Continued violence could make it extremely difficult for the talks to progress.
For many Afghans, any prospect of the Taliban even sharing power is disconcerting. Notwithstanding their solemn pledges, the Taliban have maintained a deliberate ambiguity about their political agenda, adding to the sense of confusion.
There were some indications that the conservative movement would be willing to work within a pluralistic political system. Yet there has not been any clarity on whether or not the group would be willing to work within a democratic political and constitutional set-up. Another cause of concern is the protection of women’s rights to education and work. Although the Taliban leaders said they acknowledged women’s rights and would not oppose female education, this assurance has not helped remove concerns.
Lack of a coherent policy on the part of the Kabul government has also made things more complicated. There are many in the Afghan government who have never been in favor of talks with the insurgents and wanted the American forces to stay in the country. That thinking has also been a major cause for the delay in intra-Afghan talks.
The Trump administration has started drawing down of the US troops after signing the peace deal with Taliban in February this year. The number of American troops has now dropped to approximately 8,600. Another 3,600 soldiers would be brought home by November leaving less than 5,000 in Afghanistan. But the complete withdrawal of US troops is linked to an intra-Afghan agreement on a future political set-up. The opportunity provided by the Doha talks must not be squandered.