A delegation from the Taliban has arrived in the Qatari capital Doha to begin talks with delegates from the Afghan republic in Kabul. The goal is to reach a peace accord to end the world’s deadliest war.
The long-delayed talks come after an agreement in February between the US and the Taliban, which included a conditional US troop withdrawal within 14 months, a controversial prisoner swap and the Taliban’s promise to cut ties with al-Qaida.
The hope is that a political settlement could help reduce the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists once the US withdraws its troops. But the peace talks, known as the intra-Afghan negotiations, have a rocky road to success. Apart from fundamental differences on the type of post-peace government and women’s rights, the challenge will be whether any agreement on a lasting ceasefire can be reached until political progress is made.
According to the UN, the 19-year war has taken at least 35,000 civilian lives with the majority of casualties inflicted by anti-government groups, mainly the Taliban.
UNAMA, February 2020
After a series of three-day ceasefires during Muslim festivals in 2020, the warring parties have expressed willingness to negotiate a lasting ceasefire during the new talks, but disagreements remain on the timing and sequencing of it. Unlike the Afghan government, human rights bodies and the EU, who all put humanitarian imperatives first, the Taliban’s view is that a ceasefire can be negotiated only after a political agreement.
Governments usually advocate for an early ceasefire in order to minimise the number of concessions they are required to make in negotiations. But armed groups are often opposed, arguing an early ceasefire can favour the status quo and government.
Some ceasefires, such as in Aceh, Indonesia in 2005, have been successfully agreed at the beginning of negotiations. But there are some examples, such as in El Salvador in the early 1990s, where a ceasefire was only negotiated after progress had been made on the political front.
Destruction left by a Taliban suicide bomb which killed at least four people on August 25 in Balkh. Mutalib Sultani/EP
Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, formed after the toppling of the Taliban Islamic Emirate in 2001, starts by calling Afghanistan “an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible”.
It’s likely the negotiators will agree on all these broad principles – except the idea of Afghanistan as a republic. That’s because the Taliban still presents itself as an Islamic emirate forced into exile by the US invasion.
The Afghan republic derives its legitimacy from a popular mandate, rather than the divine right vested in the Taliban’s Islamic emirate. The head of state and members of parliament are now elected, albeit with allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice.
After capturing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban formed a two-track governance system, made up of a political military leadership council and an executive bureau aiming to transfer its leadership system into state structures. But the group never succeeded in forming a functional state.
In 2020, little is known about the specifics of what the Taliban wants the future Afghan state to look like. However, the group does appear to want an inclusive, Islamic political system in which sharia laws are enforced – possibly akin to the theocratic government in Iran.
To ensure effectiveness and stability, any agreement on the structure of a post-peace government should make clear the role of the state institutions which have been set up since 2001. And it must also reflect the underlying configuration of power in Afghanistan, which is predominantly based on consensus among elites than domination by one group over the rest.
The Taliban claims to want to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women “granted by Islam” are protected. When Taliban leaders were asked whether women should be allowed to go outside alone, according to Human Rights Watch, they said women would only be permitted to travel a short distance without a male companion. Such a restriction would be among the the world’s strictest interpretations of sharia law – comparable to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system.
The question is whether Taliban negotiators will be willing to acknowledge that there are multiple interpretations of sharia, as well as embrace the post-2001 realities of Afghanistan, which have changed significantly since the group was last in power.
The fact that all sides are now sitting down at the negotiating table doesn’t necessarily mean they all believe a mutually acceptable political settlement is feasible. It can be tactical, a way to show progress.
The success of peace negotiations depends partly on whether the parties involved now conclude they can no longer sustain the recent levels of violence. But it also depends on them changing their perception of the conflict as a zero-sum game – one in which what one side gains, the other loses.
While all parties express their willingness to end the prolonged war, there are doubts whether the peace efforts could have got this far without US pressure for intra-Afghan negotiations to begin. But the US involvement – and Trump’s apparent push to get a deal before the US election in November – could mean a peace agreement ends up being imposed on Afghanistan that is likely to fail, for example due to reluctance of the post-peace government to implement it.
The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, recently said that “Afghan society doesn’t have a deadline”. Given the frighteningly massive human cost of the war, these peace efforts must be given a genuine chance – along with the necessary time and space to succeed.