Following the signing of the peace agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the USA on February 29, 2020, most observers expected the violence in the country to subside, paving the way for negotiations among the Afghan people. March 10 was set as the start of the second stage of the reconciliation process, namely the Afghan–Afghan dialogue aimed at ending the state of war and instability that the country has experienced for nearly four decades. No tangible progress in the Afghan reconciliation process — particularly the dialogue between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban regarding prisoner exchanges and a ceasefire — has been achieved thus far, however. On the contrary, various stumbling blocks to Afghan reconciliation have recently arisen.

1. Delay in release of Taliban prisoners

Perhaps the most important complication that has hindered Afghan reconciliation is the dispute over the release of Taliban prisoners. Initially, the agreement to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 pro-government prisoners held by the Taliban was intended as a confidence-building measure. However, the government later refused to release the remaining Taliban elements immediately, calling for the Taliban to first reduce the frequency of its violence and to provide guarantees that released prisoners would not return to the battlefield. As of late May 2020, the Afghan government had released nearly 2,000 of its 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban had released more than 250 pro-government prisoners.

Some observers have accused President Ghani of attempting to postpone the release of the prisoners to enable himself to remain in power, claiming that he does not want to engage in direct dialogue with the Taliban. In their view, his refusal to release the prisoners is based on the very likely assumption that, once a comprehensive solution to the situation in Afghanistan has been reached, his government will no longer be to hold onto power.

2. Increasing Taliban attacks against government forces

While the Taliban appears to have honored its commitment not to attack US or coalition forces, it has continued to attack Afghan security forces. The Taliban rejected the Afghan government’s request for a ceasefire during Ramadan, instead choosing to intensify its recent operations against Afghan forces (the Taliban has carried out more than 3,800 attacks since February) on the pretext that the agreement with Washington does not apply to ceasefires with the government.

Taliban field commanders have clearly stated that they respected the ceasefire agreement only insofar as it granted US troops safe passage out of the country. They do not, however, believe that the agreement prevents them from continuing to attack Afghan government forces with the aim of compelling the government to review its decision to stop releasing Taliban prisoners. This view was set out in a number of Taliban publications, which are now using the phrase “remove obstacles to the establishment of the Islamic system” where previously they referred to “ending the occupation”.

In response, President Ghani has ordered the Afghan security forces to resume offensive operations against the Taliban. Afghan National Security Adviser Hamadullah Moheb has said that “there is no point in continuing to involve [the Taliban] in peace talks”.

3. Taliban refusal of government negotiating authority

The absence of the Afghan government during negotiations between the Taliban and Washington further weakened Kabul’s position in the eyes of the Taliban. The Taliban has stated that it no longer recognizes the government as a single negotiating body, but rather sees it as one component of negotiations involving all political forces in the country. The Taliban therefore rejected the government’s choice of negotiating authority, calling it insufficient. On March 28, the Taliban announced that it would not negotiate with the chosen authority “as it was not formed in a way that encompassed the full spectrum of the Afghan people”.

The Taliban believes that it was victorious over the mighty USA and its allies in the field of war. It therefore has no desire to become the weaker partner in a future government. The Taliban wants to replace the current system, and if this is not possible, it at least wants to hold the advantage in any future arrangements. The Taliban is attempting to mimic the Vietnamese model; while the Americans negotiated in Paris, the conflict in Vietnam continued until the USA decided to withdraw its forces and abandon its allies in South Vietnam.

4. Activities of other armed groups

Some observers have warned that the cycle of war in Afghanistan may continue despite the US agreement with the Taliban, given the presence of other armed groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State (Da’esh). According to the Afghan authorities, there are more than 20 groups in Afghanistan acting under the umbrella of “the Taliban”, thereby increasing the likelihood that the war will continue. This is all the more likely given that both Al-Qaida and Islamic State have an influence in the country, and the Taliban has vowed to prevent armed groups from operating in Afghan territory, including by confronting them militarily. Such hostilities have existed since Islamic State first appeared in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has clashed with Islamic State in the east and in some areas of the north and south.

5. Interventions and opposing interests among regional and international powers

The political, economic, and security interests of the international powers in Afghanistan sometimes overlap and sometimes are at odds, particularly among Russia, China, and the USA. In such a complex atmosphere, dialogue and reconciliation are difficult. Neighboring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and India also have interests in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are known to have influence over the Afghan authorities, and each of them has its own mechanisms and means of influencing the course of the reconciliation process in the country.

There is a strong feeling that India is the main loser in Trump’s deal with the Taliban. The deal strengthens the position of both Pakistan and the Taliban, especially as the Taliban expressed reservations regarding Washington’s efforts to engage India in the Afghan dialogue and regarding the agreement by both President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to develop relations with India and involve it in the reconciliation process. The Taliban opposes India’s involvement in Afghanistan, and it viewed Washington’s efforts to engage India as an attempt to mobilize pro-India forces against the Taliban.

Conclusion and expectations

The process of achieving a comprehensive peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan remains complicated, as many disagreements regarding the future of the Afghan constitution are yet to be resolved. Areas of contention include the Taliban’s desire for Afghanistan to become an “Islamic emirate” rather than its current status as an Islamic Republic, as well as the Taliban’s questionable commitment to human rights, in particular women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities. The process of integrating Taliban elements into the current Afghan police and army will also be challenging and will require lengthy, intensive negotiations.

These issues raise doubts about the future of the reconciliation process between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s government. Many Afghanis fear that the entire peace process is at risk, which may lead to a continued cycle of violence. There are also fears that a civil war may reignite following Washington’s insistence on withdrawing almost all its troops once and for all. All parties may yet return to dialogue, however; the war is not yet over, and all sides are aware of the difficulty of achieving any kind of victory, especially as various domestic issues have yet to be resolved and as regional and international players continue to vie for influence over Afghanistan’s future.  

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