Rise to Peace blog

Afghan Negotiators Are Ready To Talk to the Taliban

The Afghan government finally released the list of negotiators that should discuss peace with the Taliban. Afghanistan has been drifting from one hardship to another for over 19 years, and keeping sight of priorities amid great turmoil has become everyday practice. As the country contends with 170 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as a current hurdle, the Afghan government delivered a list of delegates intended to start intra-Afghan negotiations and secure a ceasefire.

Khalid Noor, among the designated members of the newly announced negotiating team, told Rise to Peace in an exclusive interview: “Members of this negotiating team come from all walks of society, and especially from the new generation. I think this team will work to defend the rights of Afghan women and men, their freedoms and their gains over the past 18 years, while also protecting the Republic of Afghanistan and its constitution.” Addressing Afghan citizens, Noor continued, “we are representing all Afghans in Afghanistan. To anyone in any corner of Afghanistan, we will defend and represent them. Our address is our people and our regime.”

The move shows important progress has been made towards achieving the goals stipulated in the United States-Taliban agreement. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the two competing presidents — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — for their incapacity to resolve the disputes that hinder the peace process, and suspended $1 billion worth of US aid for Afghanistan. Notwithstanding, after months of controversy and disagreement, Afghan leadership mobilized and put together a list of negotiators for holding peace talks with the Taliban. The list was also endorsed by Abdullah Abdullah. The start of intra-Afghan dialogues would be a premiere for the peace process, as until now Afghan parties only interacted indirectly.

The team of negotiators is part of a two-fold effort to further peace in Afghanistan. Whereas the announced negotiation team will engage directly in talks with the Taliban, the decisions regarding the substance of the discussions and their strategic goals will be decided by a High-Level Political Conciliation Committee. Consultations for the establishment of the Committee are ongoing, but government representatives have agreed already on appointing Abdul Rasul Sayyaf as the head of the High Level Committee. The decision making committee should include all major political leaders of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the negotiating team is itself a major breakthrough, presenting diversity among negotiator profiles and political affiliations. The list contains 21 persons coming from political parties, local leaders, civil society organizations, and the Afghan government. Both European Union representatives and the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad congratulated the Afghan Government and expressed support for the newly established team, recognizing the importance of diversity.

The negotiating delegation is headed by Masoom Stanikzai — former head of the Afghan intelligence agency — and includes representatives of both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, as well as five women and youth. The proposed negotiations team also accommodates Kalimullah Naqibi, the deputy head of Jamiat-e-Islami party, Amin Karim representing Hizb-e-Islami in the delegation and a member of the Ulema Council (full list here).

The Taliban responded to the negotiation team proposal with reservations. While they do not contest the assignment of most of the team members, they oppose the appointment of Masoom Stanikzai, especially because of his cooperation with the communist regime in the 1980s. The list was also criticized for not being inclusive enough, and for failing to ensure participation of local community leaders and of representatives of Afghanistan’s multiple ethnicities. Nevertheless, the Taliban have no option than to accept the negotiating team proposal.

But Taliban resistance to accept negotiation goes far beyond who the negotiators are – they are fighting for broader political gains and violence is the way to it. While progress seemed to be made for the release of Taliban prisoners, the government was compelled to postpone the release once more over Taliban violence. The US-Taliban Agreement stipulated that up to 5000 prisoners of the Taliban should be released by the Afghan government before the beginning of negotiations, and during the most recent talks the release was set to start on March 31. Extensive clashes between Taliban and government forces took place across Afghanistan, Taliban terrorism culminating with the killing of 28 Afghan soldiers in four provinces.

Whereas consistent progress has been made towards achieving peace, the road ahead is complex. “It is a positive step towards peace, it is an inclusive team so far, but it is hard to predict how this is going to go” said Khalid Noor. Even if this team may not achieve a ceasefire, it can work towards a reduction of violence.

Three key challenges most likely lie ahead.

  • The type of political regime to be instituted in Afghanistan will be among the most contentious issue that will arise during intra-Afghan talks. The country’s constitution is already Islamic, but the Taliban will be reluctant to accept any form of political pluralism, further complicating decisions over the country’s future.
  • No Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) plan for the 50 to 60 000 Taliban fighters has been discussed, and peace depends largely on DDR. Amid the gradual withdrawal of the US military, the Afghan government will remain — rightly so — reluctant to the release of Taliban prisoners. Peace is a trust building exercise, and the Taliban have shown little reasons to be trusted.
  • Neighboring countries are likely to influence talks, and for now external intervention remains the most uncertain and ambiguous component of the peace process.

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