KABUL, Afghanistan – After four decades of fierce fighting in Afghanistan, peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have at least opened the possibility that the long cycle of violence may one day end.
But that milestone is still a long way off. The most recent round of discussions, which started in September, was fraught with bureaucratic problems and months of debates on minor issues.
And although these talks resulted in an agreement on the principles and procedures that will guide the next round of peace negotiations, they came with a price. As the two sides met in Doha, Qatar, bloodshed on battlefields and in Afghan cities rose sharply.
Now that the peace talks are due to resume on January 5th, the details of the next negotiations remain unclear.
While both the Afghan government and the Taliban have announced that they will not publicly publish their priority lists for the next round of negotiations, security analysts, researchers, and government and Taliban officials expect the following – and what hinders these talks must be overcome.
What are the end goals of these conversations?
The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to create a political roadmap for a future government. The head of the government’s negotiating team, Masoom Stanikzai, said Wednesday that a ceasefire would be the delegation’s top priority. The Taliban, who have leveraged attacks against security forces and civilians, are instead trying to negotiate a form of government based on strict Islamic laws before discussing a ceasefire.
However, it will not be easy to get to these larger fundamental questions as both sides continue to cling to the meanings of fundamental terms such as “ceasefire” and “Islamic”. There are many forms of ceasefire, from permanent and federal to partial and conditional, yet the public portion of the February US-Taliban agreement calling for the full withdrawal of American troops mentions but does not specifically mandate or fully define them how it should look.
The Taliban also refuse to specify what they mean by “Islamic” and the government’s insistence on an “Islamic” republic has been the subject of intense debate.
“The Taliban say they want an Islamic system, but they don’t specify which ones,” said Abdul Haific Mansoor, a member of the Afghan negotiating team, pointing out that there are almost as many systems as there are Islamic countries.
The next round of talks will also be made more difficult by the Taliban’s demand that the government release more Taliban prisoners. The government’s release of more than 5,000 prisoners removed the final barrier to negotiations in September, but President Ashraf Ghani has so far refused to release any more.
Where are the fights?
Both sides used the violence on the ground in Afghanistan as leverage during the Doha negotiations, but the Taliban have been more aggressive in their attacks than the government, whose troops tend to stay at bases and checkpoints to respond to sustained attacks.
According to a New York Times review, the number of security forces and civilians rose during the ongoing talks in the fall, before the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators announced in early December that they had reached an agreement on procedures for future talks had cold weather likely contributed to the decline as well. At least 429 pro-government forces were killed in September and at least 212 civilians were killed in October – the worst tolls in any category in more than a year.
“The killing and bloodshed have reached new heights,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a military analyst in Kabul. “What kind of will for peace is that?”
Ibraheem Bahiss, an independent Afghan research analyst, said the Taliban are pursuing two paths simultaneously: violence and negotiation.
“Your goal is to come to power and have a particular system of government,” said Bahiss. “Whether they get there through conversation or through fighting, both of them have costs that they are willing to pay.”
What role is the US playing right now?
Although the Taliban have greatly reduced direct attacks on US forces since February, the insurgent group has relentlessly expanded the territory it controls by besieging local security forces.
In response, the Americans have launched air strikes where Afghan troops were under extreme stress during the Taliban’s attacks. One Taliban official said the level of violence in the group was direct response to air strikes from the United States or to military and poorly received diplomatic action by the Afghan government.
US air strikes this fall rescued the crumpled defenses of Afghan units in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, revealing deficiencies in Afghan ground and air forces that are under constant attack. US officials said the deteriorating morale of the armed forces has raised concerns about General Austin S. Miller, commander of the US-led mission in the country.
At the same time, the number of American troops dropped from around 12,000 in February to an estimated 2,500 by mid-January. A full withdrawal is planned by May, when the deal goes into effect. This has left Afghan officials unsure of how their forces can survive without American support.
The importance of the talks with the United States was underscored in November when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Doha and met with negotiators, and again in mid-December when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark A. Milley, did the same.
A Pentagon statement said General Milley urged the Taliban to “reduce violence immediately,” a term that American officials have used several times this year and that is open to a wide range of interpretations. US officials are trying to balance the battlefield.
Both sides are also waiting to see whether President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will stick to the troop withdrawal schedule or possibly renegotiate the entire deal.
If Mr Biden decides to leave any remaining American anti-terrorist military force in Afghanistan after May 2021, as suggested by some US lawmakers, Mr Bahiss said, “The Taliban have made it clear that the entire deal would be void.”
What other obstacles could stall negotiations?
In light of the allegations and suspicions in Doha, some Afghan analysts fear that talks could stall for months.
“The distrust between the two sides has increased violence, but nothing has been done to eradicate that distrust,” said Syed Akbar Agha, a former leader of the Taliban’s Jaish-ul Muslim group.
This could indefinitely delay serious attempts to address core government issues such as human rights, free press, rights for women and religious minorities, and democratic elections, among others.
Taliban negotiators have stated that they support women’s rights, for example, but only under strict Islamic law. Many analysts interpret this as the same harsh oppression of women practiced by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The deeply divided government in Kabul also fears that the Taliban will try to shorten the time before all American forces depart, while the Taliban claim that Mr Ghani, who was re-elected in a bitterly controversial election last spring, stands still to serve out his five year tenure. If a form of national unity or an interim government were agreed, Mr Ghani would be unlikely to remain in office.
Another complication is the division within the Taliban, from stubborn commanders in Afghanistan to political negotiators in Doha’s hotels. Some Taliban factions believe they should fight and defeat the Americans and the Afghan government, not negotiate with them.
Mr Agha, the former Taliban leader, said little progress was likely unless an impartial mediator emerged who could reduce the lack of confidence in Doha.
“If not,” he said, “I don’t think the next round of talks will end with a positive result.”
Some analysts fear an even more threatening result. Torek Farhadi, a former advisor to the Afghan government, said: “One thing is clear – without an agreement we are facing civil war.”
Najim Rahim, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi reported from Kabul.