The Challenges of the Afghan Peace Talks
In February 2020, after more than a year of negotiations, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. By signing the agreement, the Taliban committed to preventing terrorist organisations from launching attacks against the US from Afghanistan. At the same time, the US agreed to gradually withdraw its forces – and that of NATO – by March 2021. Moreover, the Taliban agreed to engage in intra-Afghan peace talks to discuss the implementation of a ‘permanent and comprehensive ceasefire’ with the Afghan government.
The start of intra-Afghan talks was delayed for almost six months as they hinged on a mutual prisoner release between the Afghan government and the Taliban. On 12 September 2020, the last six prisoners were finally released from Kabul and talks began in Doha. However, a compromise between the two opposing parties will be hard to achieve, not least as several challenges remain.
First, while both sides have emphasised their earnestness in the negotiations, the two parties’ visions for the country’s future differ profoundly. Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation and leader of the Afghan government’s delegation in Doha, emphasised that democratic values and specifically human and women’s rights were to be preserved, but the Taliban may have other ideas. During their time in government between 1996 and 2001, they implemented an ultra-radical Islamic theocracy. Although the movement has come a long way since and toned down on several of its policies, they remain committed to what they call a ‘true Islamic system’. The Taliban emphasised that this Islamic system should be ‘inclusive’, but the group has yet to outline what this means and where they are ready to compromise.
Moreover, as I have argued in a recent paper, neither of the two visions necessarily correspond with the views of large parts of Afghanistan’s population. While the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of sharia law contradicts traditional Afghan values and beliefs, the Western democratic values introduced to the country in 2001 by the international community have equally failed to gain a strong foothold in the country’s rural areas. Reaching a compromise which satisfies the two delegations and a majority of the population will prove a difficult endeavour.
Second, the talks happen in a context of ongoing and increasing violence. As the talks began, the government was pushing for an immediate ceasefire. However, the Taliban have refused to agree to a ceasefire prior to substantive discussions. Indeed, the military successes of the armed group are arguably its biggest asset in the talks to come.
The Taliban already control large strides of the country and openly contest two-thirds, and its military success and the ongoing violence puts pressure on the Kabul negotiation team. Every attack signals the failure of the Afghan government to protect its citizens and demonstrates the Taliban’s power. Conversely, a ceasefire would not only grant the Afghan government a political success but also give the Afghan army a much-needed pause during which the Taliban fighters might lose their momentum on the battlefield. Both delegations have said to not let their negotiations be disturbed by outside events but the staggering death toll of up to fifty casualties per day might likely disrupt the talks eventually.
Moreover, the increase in violence from the Taliban’s side puts the group’s commitment to the negotiations into doubt. While they might simply try to increase their leverage at the negotiations, the Taliban could also seek to be militarily ready when the talks go ill – or once the US has fully withdrawn by March 2021. After all, the US has kept the withdrawal deadline practically unconditional except for the one condition that the Taliban deny a safe haven to terrorist organisations.
Finally, both delegations will face internal challenges of their own when proceeding with the negotiations. Ever since the contested presidential elections in September 2019, the Afghan government has been unstable. While initially both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president, by May 2020 a power-sharing agreement was found. Nevertheless, internal divisions remain high, threatening a unified stance in the peace negotiations. Moreover, the government lacks full control of many districts, ceding it to local strongmen and warlords. However, it remains questionable to what extent these local pockets of power would accept a deal negotiated by the Afghan government.
The Taliban have equal reason to worry about internal unity. While the implementation of the 7-day ceasefire in February 2020 has shown that the Taliban can control their fighters, the group is far from a centralised movement. Instead, it is organised into many local cells, led by military commanders with their own policies and local customs. Parts of the Taliban have refused to accept the US-Taliban agreement, and whatever the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks, not all Taliban will agree with the result. However, the appointment of Mawlawi Haqqani, a respected Islamic scholar and leader of the Taliban’s court system, as head of the Taliban delegation suggests that the leadership is aware of this problem and will act carefully not to alienate its fighters.
The Art of the Deal
The peace talks are a unique opportunity for Afghanistan to find a lasting agreement to end almost half a century of war that has ravaged the country and cost tens of thousands of lives. But finding a compromise will prove a difficult task for both sides, and even then, its successful implementation is far from guaranteed. Finally, things might also hinge on the US presidential election. Although President Trump’s current policy of unconditional withdrawal has been criticised, it undoubtedly has enabled the Taliban to finally engage in meaningful negotiations without devaluating their year-long fight. It remains to be seen whether the next US president seeks to re-negotiate the US-Taliban agreement or continues to withdraw from the country by March 2021.
Wolfgang Minatti is a Ph.D. researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on civil war and armed groups, including rebel governance, processes of legitimacy and military strategy.