Intra-Afghan Dialogue and the Road Ahead

Members of the Afghan government delegation
Members of the Afghan government delegation during the opening of intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Sept. 12, 2020. Credit: Ron Przysucha /U.S. State Department

Afghan government and the Taliban appear willing to end the long and bloody war through dialogue. The intra-Afghan dialogue which began on Sep. 12 in Qatar, was supposed to begin in March. The ongoing talks have generated hopes and opportunities for the two parties to put an end to the long war.

The opening ceremony of the much waited talks saw U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo optimistic about the negotiations, saying it was up to the Afghans to “seize the moment.” What he basically suggested was that the warring sides need to be pragmatic in their approach and not lose this key opportunity of negotiating an end to the fierce conflict. The conflict has seen considerable loss of men and material in Afghanistan. War has not resolved it. And Qatar talks look promising as both sides continue to hold on despite the ongoing violence in Afghanistan.

Washington is also putting pressure on Kabul and the Taliban to negotiate an end to the conflict because the Trump administration looks firm and decisive in calling its troops back from Afghanistan. Recently, in his address to the UN General Assembly, President Trump reiterated that “we are bringing our troops home.” He had also revealed that American troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to 4,000 over the next few weeks. The announcement by the U.S. president indicates that he is fulfilling his election promise of ending America’s war in Afghanistan. Trump believes that disengaging America from its long wars will be his foreign policy achievement, a device which he can use to garner electoral support ahead of his reelection in November.

However, the intra-Afghan talks seem to prolong and prove a complicated affair: not only has the violence intensified in Afghanistan but also the number of causalities are rising as the recent attacks across the country show; people are losing their lives in the attacks while the two parties to the Doha talks are blaming each other for the prevailing situation in the country. An attack of major implications by either side could possibly push the situation out of control. Meanwhile, Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative, have expressed concern over the state of affairs

Incidentally, the talks as of now have not noted anything about the end of the fighting or the reduction of violence an indication that fighting is likely to last till an agreement is reached in Doha; it seems that the two fighting sides see the ongoing attacks on each other as a requirement to strengthen their hold in the talks in Qatar. On the other hand, the accompanying violence to talks foreshadows the return of bloodbath and civil war if no agreement is reached between Kabul and the Taliban.

Most importantly, the path to Afghan peace is through making tough compromises. Several issues are to be negotiated – a ceasefire (which Kabul is seeking) and a transitional form of government (which the Taliban is seeking) are the main ones. If the two parties to the dialogue succeed in negotiating a compromise on these two main issues, the new dawn of peace in Afghanistan is likely to break. But if there is no agreement on these two thorny issues, the Qatar talks are likely to cease to exist. The Taliban have time and again said that the agreement on the reduction of violence or a permanent ceasefire cannot be made unless there is an understanding of a political settlement and an interim arrangement. The Afghan government believes that it is unconstitutional to have a transitional arrangement before the final political settlement. But the Taliban do not look willing to accept a power sharing arrangement without an interim government in place.

Differences are also likely to emerge on the constitution for Afghanistan. The Taliban’s demand for making Afghanistan an emirate/Sharia state could be opposed by Kabul as Ashraf Ghani government sees Afghanistan as a republic. There is a constitutional provision for a republic. This key issue will possibly come up for the discussion in the negotiations and will impact Afghanistan’s future political situation. Thus, this political framework is paramount and is to be agreed if talks are to go ahead.

Another major issue is for America to honor its commitment — to review sanctions against the members of the Taliban agreed under the U.S.-Taliban deal. The Feb. 29 deal notes that Washington will begin the process of review after the intra-Afghan dialogue begins. Further, the U.S. has committed to talk to the other UN Security Council members to remove Taliban members from the council’s sanctions list. As Washington looks firm to fulfil the commitments regardless of the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue, Kabul is likely to be under tremendous pressure to yield to the Taliban demands or its game plan.

The path to achieve peace in Afghanistan through negotiations does not look to be easy because for a political settlement to be negotiated, the warring parties need to compromise on several tough issues. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government will find many obstacles in the way. Yet, they need to focus on the outcome which ends Afghanistan’s war of decades. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.