Intra-Afghan Round of Negotiations: Chances, Risks and Possible scenarios

Ahmed Diab | 15 Sep 2020

On 12 September 2020, in the wake of the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York in 2001, direct intra-Afghan negotiations between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban movement began in Doha. These negotiations constitute the second phase of the Afghan peace project, nearly six months after the signing of the Doha Agreement between Washington and the Taliban on 29 February 2020, which aims at ending the war that tore the country apart for nearly twenty years.

Opportunities and drivers of success in negotiations between the government and the Taliban

1. US insistence on the start of negotiations:

Washington has recently intensified its pressure on the two parties to the conflict (the Ghani government and the Taliban) to conduct negotiations to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. The US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien had a long call with President Ghani in this regard in early September 2020. Trump's appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as his special adviser on Afghanistan was an indication of how seriously he was prepared for peace talks compared to his predecessors. Khalilzad’s primary mission was to facilitate talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, without undermining the pro-US regime in Kabul.

2. Progress in the prisoner exchange process:

Since the signing of the Doha Agreement between Washington and the Taliban, which provides for the government’s release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the movement’s release of 1,000 government prisoners, this exchange process has remained a subject of controversy between the two parties and a major obstacle to direct dialogue between them. At first, the government refused to release Taliban prisoners except in the context of the Afghan dialogue or in exchange for Taliban’s acceptance of a ceasefire. However, with the movement's insistence on its opposed position, and in light of  the increasing US pressure on Kabul, the government was forced to gradually release Taliban prisoners, so that the number of the released, as of early September 2020, reached 4,800 prisoners. The High Council for National Reconciliation in Afghanistan confirmed the release in a positive step that paved the way for the start of talks between Afghans.

3. Pakistani pressure on the Taliban:

In late August 2020, a delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of Taliban's political bureau in Doha, visited Islamabad. He is believed to have come under pressure to start negotiations with the Afghan government. Two Pakistani officials (the Foreign Minister and the Chief of Military Intelligence) met again with Baradar on 11 September 2020 before Baradar’s return to Doha, and pressed for a speedy start of the Afghan peace talks. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated that his country has an effective role in the peace process in Afghanistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also repeatedly stated that he wants peace talks to get started, and that a military solution to Afghanistan is impossible. It is likely that with the presence of many members of the Taliban Leadership Council in Pakistan, Islamabad has come under pressure from Washington to use its influence to persuade the movement to come to the negotiating table.

4. International and regional support for the Afghan negotiations:

There is a regional and international consensus on the need to bring peace to Afghanistan. All international powers and bodies believe that if there is any solution to the complex Afghan situation, then it is a political solution through negotiations. The last round of dialogue took place in the midst of remarkable international presence and commendation. It was attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a broad international and military spectrum, headed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) Antonio Guterres. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance is repositioning its forces in Afghanistan to support the peace process.

Risks and limitations of the failure of the intra-Afghan negotiations

1. Differences within the government of President Ashraf Ghani:

There are clear internal differences between President Ghani's government and Afghan political figures on the one hand, and the government’s partners on the other hand. Ghani and his rival in the presidential elections Abdullah Abdullah agreed to distribute positions between their two camps, after their dispute over the results of the presidential elections that took place in September 2019 was resolved by appointing Abdullah as Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. So far, however, the two sides have not reached a solution to the crisis of the appointment of ministers. Some Afghan politicians accused the government of being dishonest about its intention to proceed with the peace process. Rather, they see that it is only betting on the factor of time, and is waiting for the outcome of the US presidential elections in November 2020, perhaps resulting in the removal of Donald Trump from the White House, which may lead to a change in the US policy towards the Afghan crisis.

2. Multiplicity of Afghan reconciliation entities:

There are currently four entities dealing with the issue of Afghan reconciliation, which may add some complications to the rounds of dialogue between the Afghan actors. These entities are the following:

  • The Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), established at the time of former President Hamid Karzai, and is currently led by Mohammad Karim Khalili, leader of the Unity (Wahadat) Party, the largest Shiite party in Afghanistan. The Board brings together a number of leaders separated from the Taliban and some political figures and parties. It has a special budget, and observers believe that it was formed only to satisfy some political figures and grant government positions to others.
  • The State Ministry for Reconciliation Affairs which was established in 2019 by President Ghani and to which he appointed as head one of his confidants, namely Abdul Salam Rahimi. However, after agreeing with Abdullah, Ghani decided that the ministry be under the latter's administration. So Rahimi was removed without appointing a minister to this day. The dispute in this regard revolves around Ghani's efforts to reappoint Rahimi while Abdullah wants to appoint Mustafa Mastour. However, consensus may be reached over a third figure, namely Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi.
  • The High Council for National Reconciliation, which is a newly-established entity over whose formation and powers controversies continue. On 31 August 2020, President Ghani issued a decree appointing 46 members of the High Council for National Reconciliation, but Abdullah's office rejected that appointment, and some members of the Council requested to be excused from working under the government's umbrella, including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (leader of the Islamic Society (Jamiat-e Islami)) Salahuddin Rabbani. The leader of the Islamic Party (Hezbi Islami) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had previously refused to participate in the peace process under the government's umbrella.
  • The government’s negotiating team with the Taliban, led by former intelligence chief Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, who is close to Ghani. The team has not embarked on its duties, and the Taliban refuses to sit with it as yet.

3. Divisions within the Taliban:

While the new Taliban team responsible for holding talks with the Kabul government has the power to set agendas, decide on strategy, and even sign agreements, its leadership also changed. In a surprise tweet on 12 September 2020, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced a change in the Taliban negotiation team. Taliban’s chief justice Mawlawi Abdul Hakim, who is close to Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, was appointed as chief negotiator to replace Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai who would be deputy chief negotiator. Some of the movement’s elements from its political bureau in Doha, led by Baradar, raise questions about the extent of Baradar’s influence on the settlement negotiations, and the possibility that the different factions have different goals. Overall, the inclusion of hard-line leaders in the new negotiating team indicates that reconciliation will not be easy.

4. The Taliban’s refusal to stop the violence:

In the opening session of the recent Doha negotiations, the Chairman of the Afghan Reconciliation Council Abdullah Abdullah called for a ceasefire as soon as possible, proposing the idea of ​​a "humanitarian ceasefire", which would provide humanitarian and development aid to Afghan citizens. However, Taliban considers this demand too early and would be on the agenda of the dialogue. According to Abdullah, 12,000 civilians have been killed and 15,000 injured since the signing of the Doha Agreement between Washington and the Taliban.

The Taliban launched a dangerous attack on the strategic city of Kunduz between 20 and 26 August 2020. Although the attack failed, it demonstrates Taliban’s strategy that combines fighting and negotiation, largely ignoring international calls and demands for a reduction in violence and an agreement on a ceasefire. The movement believes that reducing violence in the country may lead to the curtailment of its influence.

5. Differences over Afghanistan’s identity and future:

There are completely contrasting views between the Kabul government and the Taliban regarding Afghanistan’s identity and future. The central government calls for a republican system of government based on the principles of moderate Islam and the preservation of the status quo supported by the West for a constitutional republic that has enshrined many rights, including more freedoms for women. The Afghan government had set a basic condition with the announcement that its negotiators would be heading for Doha, namely that "there is no compromise on the democratic system and respect for the will of the people". Nader Naderi, a member of the government negotiation delegation, indicated that there is no contradiction between the democratic system of government and Islam, adding that what is important is to preserve the freedoms of people and what has been achieved in the past period.

On the other hand, the Taliban movement continues to promote the concept of building an "Islamic emirate" and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the current government. Muhammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban negotiating delegation, said, "it is not possible to forfeit the sacrifices made over the past 20 years; there is no alternative to a system based on Islamic values". During the Doha meeting, the head of Taliban’s political bureau Abdul Ghani Baradar called for the foundation of Afghanistan as an "independent country with an Islamic system, in case an agreement is reached".

6. Doubts about the commitment of President Trump’s administration to reconciliation in Afghanistan:

On 9 September 2020, during a visit to Iraq, the Commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) General Frank McKenzie stated that US troop levels would drop to 4,500 by November 2020, as part of President Trump's promises to end the longest US war by May 2021, subject to certain security guarantees. However, for many in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, the extent of Washington's political commitment to securing a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban remains unclear. According to the Pentagon, Washington has already closed five bases in Afghanistan and largely ended the use of air power, which was a critical factor in the overthrow of the Taliban. In addition, Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw all remaining forces from the country and cut aid, which could encourage the Taliban to pursue a hard line in the negotiations.

Possible scenarios for negotiations and their outcome

While bringing together the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban at the negotiating table is an achievement in itself, it does not mean that the road to peace in Afghanistan would be easy, as the intra-Afghan negotiations will discuss many thorny issues that require long and difficult negotiations. In any case, there are three scenarios for the future of negotiation and reconciliation in Afghanistan:

1. The scenario of the Islamic Party (Hekmatyar): the government of President Ghani expects that reconciliation with the Taliban will be like reconciliation with the Islamic Party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which entered the political track, ran in the elections, and became an effective trend in the political system, without any change in government at the time. As indicated recently by the Afghan President, the government believes that regime change and his resignation are out of the question and are not on the table for dialogue, stressing that he will not repeat the experience of former President Mohammad Najibullah, considering that after his resignation, the country entered into a civil war. This seems unlikely given the size of the Taliban and its role in Afghanistan compared to Hekmatyar's party.

2. The scenario of the Colombian FARC movement: Afghan analysts make a number of historical comparisons to help visualise what their country is currently facing. Some suggest that it is extremely useful to consider the example of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and its decades-long battle with its government. Both the Taliban and the FARC constitute insurgency movements that lasted for decades, and both groups are involved in drug smuggling and other criminal organisations. However, this analogy is wrong in reality, as the FARC has gradually abandoned its communist ideology and is prioritising political power over any other ideology. This is certainly not the case with the Taliban that continues to adhere to its extremist ideology.

3. The Vietnamese scenario (Viet Cong): others point to the experience of Vietnam, in which US peace talks led to the takeover by communist North Vietnam of its southern counterpart, where fighting resumed shortly after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, and Saigon fell only two years later. According to this view, the Doha agreement between Washington and the Taliban constitutes a contemporary model of its Vietnamese counterpart with the Viet Cong. The agreement constitutes a step toward the withdrawal of US forces rather than a plan for comprehensive peace in Afghanistan. This scenario seems highly likely. After the fall of the Najibullah communist regime, the United Nations (UN) tried to mediate in the dialogue. The Taliban then agreed not to seize Kabul militarily. The talks were ongoing when the Taliban forces overran the Afghan capital, stormed the UN compound, and subsequently hanged the former Afghan leader.

The Taliban movement is now fully aware of the mix taking place in the US, which is based on combining Trump's electoral political interest in the agreement with Taliban and the conviction of Americans as a whole that the war in Afghanistan has reached a dead end. This strengthens the Taliban’s negotiating position and makes it bet on the Vietnamese model that was negotiating with the Americans in Paris while the fighting was continuing in Vietnam until the US decided to withdraw its forces and abandon its allies in South Vietnam. However, this dangerous scenario could trigger a civil war that would return Afghanistan to square one of the Soviet withdrawal phase from Afghanistan, fueled by a proxy war between regional and international powers as part of their efforts to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and ward off the dangers of its civil war.

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