While Umer Daudzai, the secretary to the High Peace Council and the Afghan president’s special envoy on peace, believes that the Taliban’s lack of military success this year could facilitate the peace process, the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban continues indecisively. The insurgent group still hopes to enter the peace process from a position of strength, and the government is still outside the process.
In the first quarter of 2019, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 581 civilian deaths, including 150 children killed. According to its quarterly report, explosive devices killed 53 civilians and left 269 others injured in the first three months of this year, a 21% increase from the same period last year. Serious concerns over the increase in civilian casualties from the use of non-suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been expressed by UNAMA.
The Taliban’s chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas is reported to have remarked in an April 28 speech to an “internal gathering” in Doha, Qatar, that the US was on the verge of defeat and the Americans would quit Afghanistan soon “either of their own accord or they will be forced out.” This remark being made while the talks are going on between the Taliban and the US points to the fact that the group believes it can prolong and circumvent the talks and let the war-weary US withdraw.
It is argued that the hardliners within the Taliban push a victory narrative and assert they do not even need any further negotiations, as the Americans are bound to leave anyway and the Taliban can easily topple the Afghan government as it is entirely dependent on external support.
Meanwhile, US air strikes in Afghanistan killed as many as 18 police officers recently during heavy ground fighting with Taliban forces near the capital of Helmand province. Such botched attacks could enhance pressure on Washington to withdraw. Afghan security officials had requested precision air support. but the air strikes missed the target and killed members of the Afghan security forces as well as Taliban fighters. This tragic accident replicates US aerial attacks undertaken during October 2015 in the northern city of Kunduz when more than 40 civilians lost their lives after receiving confused or unclear target information from Afghan ground forces.
The peace process remains opaque. While US representative Zalmay Khalilzad is seeking guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan territory will not be used primarily against the US, Daudzai observed: “When the US said that they have reached an understanding that the Taliban would give a guarantee that the Afghan soil would not be used against the third party, that’s not the right language. That’s not the language acceptable to us, because that means that the Taliban is in control of Afghanistan.”
Efforts at convening a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) of the Pashtun tribes and tribal confederacies, “to decide on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as supreme national interests,” have not been undertaken in a timely or sincere manner. President Ashraf Ghani has so far been unable to unite the opposition with his vision of an Afghan-led peace process as was articulated in his “roadmap for peace” speech in Geneva in late November, when he emphasized a phased transition toward peace.
The Afghan opposition was witnessed earlier visiting Moscow for direct talks with the Taliban and then announcing intentions for a similar round in Qatar bypassing the Afghan government.
The constitutional and democratic process in Afghanistan has been impeded by the postponement of the presidential elections. Although Ghani opened a four-day Loya Jirga with more than 3,200 delegates seeking to agree on a common approach to peace talks with the Taliban of late, the Taliban vowed that any decisions or resolutions made at the Loya Jirga are “never acceptable to the real and devout sons of this homeland.”
Countries with significant stakes in Afghanistan such as Russia, Iran and Pakistan not only maintain contacts with the Taliban, they would like to see the peace process moving in accordance with their geopolitical interests. While Pakistan has verbally supported the US-Taliban dialogue, its sincerity remains questionable. When Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was engaged in a behind-the-scenes dialogue with the former Hamid Karzai government, he was arrested by the Pakistanis in early 2010 and was released only late last year in response to a US demand.
Similarly, Russia not only hosted the “Moscow-format consultations on Afghanistan,” lack of success for such initiative has not prevented the Russian Foreign Ministry from deriding the US peace initiative. For instance, the Foreign Ministry in a statement attributed the move to postpone the Afghan presidential election from April to July this year to the US needing additional time to prepare for holding the voting “in accordance with its patterns and building a peace process in Afghanistan according to own scenario.”
Additionally, Iranian influence has increased with its enhanced trade with Afghanistan, now worth almost US$4 billion, while Afghan trade with Pakistan has dropped to $1 billion . The US peace initiative cannot gather much success without courting Iran.
The protracted war in Afghanistan has witnessed many attacks on female security personnel, politicians, educators, students and journalists. While the peace talks are continuing, Mena Mangal, a prominent Afghan journalist, an advocate of women’s rights to education and work as well as a cultural adviser to the lower chamber of Afghanistan’s national parliament, has been assassinated, indicating the fragility of the peace process. Meanwhile, Afghan women’s rights activists have been complaining that they have not been represented in the peace process and fear that any American deal with the Taliban would jeopardize their freedom.
Mangal’s assassination was preceded by Taliban attacks on the headquarters of an international aid group in Kabul. The Taliban have accused international aid workers of being engaged in “harmful Western activities” such as “promoting open inter-mixing between men and women.”
While any long-term resolution to the Afghan problem must directly engage the Taliban on the details of a comprehensive ceasefire as well as the group’s status and role in the post-conflict system of governance, the Taliban have been insistent on a date for US withdrawal along with the release of all Taliban detainees in Guantánamo and Afghanistan before any agreement is materialized. If the peace process moves according to the Taliban’s demands, the US withdrawal may lead to the overturning of the agreement. Success and failure of negotiations are the byproducts of prevailing power configurations. It is worth recalling how quickly after the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahideen denounced the Geneva agreement of 1988 saying that they were not part of it even though Pakistan had been negotiating on their behalf.
The Taliban’s commitments to human rights including women’s rights and minority rights, to containing the illegal production and trafficking of opium, and to assisting in rehabilitating almost 2.5 million refugees fled from Afghanistan as a result of the prolonged conflict must be ensured. The achievements made in the areas of state-building, democratization and pluralism must be strengthened further and the comprehensive dialogue process must involve the complicated exercise of discussing the political future of the group’s local commanders and foot soldiers apart from that of the leaders. Ignoring this may lead to endless fragmentation of the group, which in turn would generate ceaseless concerns of insecurity and instability.