Can Afghans agree on political adjustments?

Can Afghans agree on political adjustments?

If Kabul and Taliban can decide on the sequence for ceasefire and final peace deal, there will remain the jockeying for positions of power

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (R) with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (L). Credit: AFP

Violence in Afghanistan remains high, though there is a hint of optimism over the peace talks in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban. On December 2, the two delegations took a break from discussing the ‘rules for negotiations’ to ‘consult on the agenda items.’ The government side returned to Kabul; the Taliban leadership went to Pakistan. They will now reconvene on January 5 to properly discuss the agenda.

The three-month-long ‘negotiations’ to frame the rules of their engagement had got bogged down over procedural matters— specifically over the form of the Islamic law that should govern disputes and the ‘basis’ for talks. The Taliban had insisted that only the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence was relevant; the Afghan government stressed the plurality of Afghan society and demanded a reference to the Jafari school that regulates the country’s 15-20% Shia minority. 

The Taliban wanted only the US-Taliban accord to form the basis of talks; Kabul insisted that since it was not a signatory to that accord, the basis for talks should include UN endorsements for the peace process, commitments of the negotiating teams, and the will of the Afghan people.

The breakthrough came on November 22 with the Taliban conceding on both issues. The two sides then framed a ‘three-page agreement (codifying) rules and procedures for negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire.’ They broke for consultations on the sequencing of agenda points, which are said to number around 50. When they resume, the Afghan government will prioritise the framework of a political settlement and a ceasefire while the Taliban would want the release of its cadres in Kabul’s custody to be high on the agenda.

The political settlement will discuss cohabitation and, logically, the next step would revolve around framing the contours of an interim arrangement. This cohabitation is likely to see someone from the government side becoming interim head, with the Taliban having their candidate as head of an empowered council— a sort of supreme leadership council. Since the Taliban will head this council, a non-Pashtun from the government side is expected to lead the interim government which will include Taliban ministers. Decisions would need to be taken on their numbers and portfolios. The formula spoken of is in the region of 40% for the Taliban.

Bonn agreement

The only parallel to this process is the 2001 Bonn agreement, essentially between the Royalists and the Northern Alliance. The then arrangement was an equal number of ministers and an equitable distribution of portfolios, with the interim head chosen by King Zahir Shah. One name that figured then, as it does now, is Prof Sattar Sirat, a Tajik. Sirat was Zahir Shah’s choice but was rejected by the Northern Alliance as he was not Pashtun. For somewhat similar reasons, though in the reverse, the Taliban wants a non-Pashtun.

Another name making the rounds is Abdullah Abdullah, who was until March this year Chief Executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, having formed a unity government with his rival and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Abdullah has since headed the High Council for National Reconciliation, leading the talks with the Taliban, with the authority to handle and approve all matters related to the peace process.  

The issue of a ceasefire will be contentious. Kabul would want to frontload a ceasefire as this will help mould public opinion towards accepting a compact with the Taliban. However, Taliban’s position is that a ceasefire can only be after a peace deal is concluded. After this, the next step would be an international conference to give the agreement an imprimatur of international acceptance, to secure donor assistance and to consider removing from the UN terror blacklist those from the Taliban who are on it. From Taliban’s perspective, this is vital.

The US has indicated that an early ceasefire is an essential condition. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met the Taliban on December 15 in Doha and stressed a reduction in violence. A day later, he met President Ashraf Ghani and the two “expressed their concerns over the escalation of violence” and “the immediate need for a ceasefire.” The US has also taken the position that its troop withdrawal will be “conditions-based” and it needs to be assured that the Taliban will hold up its end of the bargain and cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other international terrorists.

Ceasefire, a priority

A ceasefire would also be the priority for the international community. This was stressed by Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, who told the UN Security Council last week that “violence will be a top priority when the peace talks resume in early January.” She warned that sustainable peace would only be possible if it is inclusive from the outset, with meaningful participation of women, minorities, victims of conflict, religious leaders and others. Lyons added that Afghanistan would require international support— for national security, to combat Covid-19 and other resultant challenges, including hunger and malnutrition.

Pakistan has expressed support for the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.” This was conveyed on December 16 by Prime Minister Imran Khan to President Ashraf Ghani. Khan gave an assurance that Pakistan will help bring down the level of violence, leading to a ceasefire. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met a Taliban delegation led by its deputy leader Mullah Baradar, where the former reaffirmed “support for a peaceful, stable, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan” and that it was “Pakistan’s belief that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.”

The road ahead is, however, bumpy. The agenda could run into hurdles, one of which is whether Ghani will make way easily for an interim leader. He rejected it earlier on the grounds that the Taliban does not have “adequate legitimacy.” More recently, his wife weighed in saying that the Taliban is not familiar with governance, their mindset has remained unchanged, and that an interim government would be “too dangerous.” On December 1, Ghani had pressed for the talks to be held in Afghanistan. This was immediately played down by Abdullah Abdullah, who said that the venue would be determined by both sides and it shouldn’t delay talks. The Taliban expectedly opposed Ghani’s suggestion.

What is unclear is the position of US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. The Trump administration’s Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been pushing for a quick political settlement, but it is not clear whether he reflects the views of the incoming administration. This will be clear when a new pointsman for Afghanistan is announced. However, the fact that Gen. Milley met the Taliban and Ghani suggests that Biden’s priority would be a reduction of violence and a ceasefire. On a further reduction of troops, the US line is that it must be “conditions-based.” That is, it needs to be assured that the Taliban will sever ties with Al-Qaeda.

India played an important role at Bonn, shepherding many of its ‘friends’ in the Northern Alliance to go along with the consensus. We do not carry that heft anymore and have vacillated, despite the US giving us a waiver for the Chabahar port project in Iran and Trump asking us to do more. From our perspective, the Biden administration will probably reappraise its relations with Iran, and this may see renewed interest in Chabahar. An alternate access will reduce dependency on Pakistan and could generate an altogether new momentum, particularly in areas along what is now one of the busiest roads in Afghanistan— the India-built Zaranj-Delaram road. This could provide us with an opening.  

(The writer, a former Special Secretary with the R&AW, is currently with Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)