Ashraf Ghani, shown here speaking during a gathering to assess the general security situation in Jalalabad on March 3, 2020, has now fled Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

CALCUTTA – The historic Afghan government-Taliban negotiations underway in Doha, Qatar aimed at ending 19 bloody years of war are now in danger of collapsing after nearly just two months of talks.

While the Taliban continues to ambush government forces and kill scores of civilians as talks are ongoing, Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) founder and former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s sudden announcement of separate peace talks with the Taliban threatens to throw a spanner in the elusive quest for peace.

HIA, now a political party, was first formed in 1975 as a militia to combat occupying Soviet forces. The group was later revived as a militant outfit to fight against then-president Hamid Karzai’s US-backed government before it entered a peace deal with incumbent President Ashraf Ghani’s administration in 2016.    

The question observers are weighing now is why there is a need for a parallel communications channel with the Taliban amid the crucial bilateral talks whose success hinges on building a national consensus? 

Habiburrahman Hekmatyar, the HIA’s chief-of-staff, told Asia Times: “We do support the peace process and genuinely want an end to the war, which can be achieved only by pooling all resources and bringing the stakeholders under one umbrella within an acceptable democratic framework.” He added: “But we are not satisfied with the government attitude so far.”

Disaffection with Ghani’s perceived as inept handling of the peace process, where critics say he seems more interested in stabilizing his political position than pursuing peace, could compel various other influential groups, figures and stakeholders to back a wider peace process than the current US and Pakistan-backed bilateral initiative in Qatar.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e-Islami group in Afghanistan, speaks during an event at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Islamabad on October 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

Hekmatyar claimed that the HIA is in touch with Jamiat-e-Islami leader and former foreign minister Salahudin Rabbani, Hezb-e-Wahdat Party chief and Afghan High Peace Council chairman Karim Khalili, and influential ex-president Harmid Zarzai and that all support HIA’s alternative peace bid.

The HIA’s chief-of-staff said that his party’s leadership believes the peace process needs to be a truly national initiative and not a “monopoly of a few.” The Taliban is ready to hold a separate leadership level dialogue with the HIA, which will take place sometime soon, he said.

Observers suggest Karzai’s blessing of the HIA’s move could catalyze a Ghani-Karzai battle of political wits. “Karzai is still a very important player in Afghanistan, while Ghani on his own does not have much political salience,” says an eminent Afghanistan expert with years of experience in back-channel negotiations who requested anonymity.

He said that the Taliban would be the most influential group in any new political setup in Afghanistan, an outcome Ghani will not readily accept in mere bilateral talks.  

Richard Boucher, a former US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, is cynical about Hekmatyar’s strategy. According to Boucher, Hekmatyar has maneuvered since the days he was an American ally fighting as an insurgent against the Soviets.

“We periodically heard from Hekmatyar – through third parties – over the past few decades about making separate peace, and always replied that he had to make peace with the properly constituted Afghan government,” says Boucher, who views the HIA chief’s current bid a thinly veiled effort to get recognition and status with the Taliban, the government and US.

“Like the Taliban, he needs to make peace with the national authorities,” contends the retired American diplomat. While Ghani and the HIA signed a peace deal in 2016, Hekmatyar has expressed his pique over the composition of the Afghan peace delegation negotiating with the Taliban.

Now, with major Afghan political figures showing signs of discomfort with President Ghani’s handling of the peace process, the US and Pakistan-sponsored peace initiative in Qatar may soon lose multi-partisan acceptance.

Taliban delegation members attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar

Moreover, American strategic planners will face some uncomfortable questions over the perceived lack of an objective assessment of the ground-level political realities among various stakeholders, in a bid to boil down the intra-Afghan peace process into a bilateral process.

As Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Salman Bashir points out, “all Afghans have lines of communication with each other, irrespective of political affiliations.” However, he warns that detracting from the Doha process will spell trouble as factions are tempted to consolidate their alliances to get a voice at the table.

One Afghan affairs pundit who requested anonymity said that representatives from various parties should jointly engage the Taliban to help bridge the peace process’s many gaps, as different groups negotiating separately will only prolong and complicate the process, which in any case is moving at a snail’s pace.

Boucher, too, concedes that Ghani, despite heading a government elected by the Afghans and recognized by the international community, will have to listen to others within the system as well as at the next election. 

“Peace within a democratic structure is the goal and should be the sole focus of all – government, politicians, Taliban, Hekmatyar,” observes the former head of South Asian affairs at the US State Department.

With the US recently intensifying air operations against the Taliban after guerillas launched bloody coordinated attacks in Helmand province – Afghanistan’s opium haven – both parties have accused the other of violating their commitment to incrementally reduce violence while talks are ongoing.

As Afghan and Taliban negotiators remained deadlocked at the high table, with both sides failing to reach a consensus on even a framework or an agenda for the talks to move forward, the US-backed peace process could already be at a breaking point, observers and analysts say.

Indeed, an impression is gaining ground that the Washington-mediated peace initiative is fast turning into a fulcrum of another proxy war, where competing foreign powers are influencing the process. Hekmatyar said as much during a speech at an Institute of Policy Studies think tank-organized conference in Islamabad on October 21.

IUS Marines from 2nd Battalion, 8 Marine Regiment of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait to board helicopters as they leave to take part in Operation Khanjar – Strike of the Sword – at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province. Photo: AFP/ Manpreet Romana

Boucher notes Afghanistan’s tumultuous history – replete with centuries of foreign invasions and interference, from the Mughals to the British, to the Soviets and Americans – to drive home the point that outside attempts like the 2001 Bonn Agreement will not achieve national peace unless parties within Afghanistan make peace with each other.

“We have come to the point where the outside issues, including US withdrawal, have been settled, and now it is time for the Afghans to reconcile,” asserts Boucher, with a caveat: “If we can learn anything from Afghanistan’s last 150 years history, it is that outside powers cannot decide who will rule Afghanistan, even if they try.”

Now, there are questions on whether a new US administration under Joe Biden will continue to support the Donald Trump-initiated process.

Boucher does not foresee any sudden course shift, citing Biden’s previous skepticism about US interventions. Significantly, the Barack Obama administration in which Biden served as vice president inherited the Afghanistan war but failed to end it.

Still, Boucher is cautiously optimistic about the talks’ potential outcome and prospects for Afghan democracy.

“Initially, power-sharing remains more likely than an open contest of early elections — the elected leaders, the Taliban, Hekmatyar, the Northern Alliance would all prefer an agreed place in power to the uncertainties of elections,” said Boucher, adding: “It will probably not bring lasting peace but it may get us to a more stable interim arrangement that can lead to eventual elections.”  

Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist