The talks must be viewed as an opportunity to transform the Afghan social and political landscape, by reflecting local voices – especially that of women, and other marginalised groups – in the agenda of the peace process.
On 3 September 2020, the Office of the National Security Council of Afghanistan (ONSC) announced that the process of prisoner exchange with the Taliban had been completed, paving the way for the long-awaited intra-Afghan talks to be launched. The protracted process of prisoner release had earlier hit a snag, with President Ghani refusing to free the last batch of 400 highly dangerous Taliban prisoners, many of whom were convicted of unspeakable crimes.
Even as the loya jirga, convened by President Ghani to take a call on the fate of the remaining Taliban prisoners, approved the latter’s release with a view of prioritising peace over any other consideration, the Afghan government held reservations about the same. While expressing apprehension in freeing the remaining inmates, many of whom were seen as a grave threat to society, the government also demanded that the Taliban release the 20 security personnel they still had in captivity.
In the latest update, however, the exchange of prisoners is complete on both ends, with only half a dozen Taliban prisoners still held by the government, who have carried out attacks against foreign forces. The 7 Taliban prisoners, whose release is contested by countries like Australia and France, will be flown to Qatar and handed over to the government there instead, as talks begin in Doha.
The intra-Afghan negotiations, which could reportedly begin in the first or second week of September itself, would witness high-powered delegations on both the sides, carrying sweeping decision-making powers to decide the agenda, and sign agreements, if need be. The Taliban’s 20-member negotiating team that has been handpicked by the group’s chief Mullah Akhundzada consists of members from their leadership council as well,with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai helming the delegation as lead negotiator.
On the side of the government, the negotiating team consists of politicians, former officials, civil society representatives and even a few women, who will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, former head of the National Directorate of Security. The constitution of the team has also been endorsed by the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, who has stressed the need to uphold national interests, women’s rights and the values of freedom of speech and sovereignty during talks.
While the news of the possibility of intra-Afghan talks materialising over the next couple of weeks rekindles hopes for a peaceful future, it also brings into focus the problem of reconciling incompatible value systems, held by either side. On the one hand is the Afghan government, determined to retain the liberal, democratic Islamic order, with the aim of safeguarding civil liberties and the rights of women and minorities.
On the other hand is the Taliban, which espouses a fundamentalist value system, and seeks to establish a theocratic order in Afghanistan, governed by a strict interpretation of the sharia or Islamic law. For the Taliban, any political system that does not conform to their fundamentalist vision of the state is invalid. The tussle between the Taliban and the Afghan government therefore ultimately boils down to their ideologically different views of the Afghan state.
The Taliban’s set of radical beliefs and values is also what sets them apart from the other insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan, and as questionable as it may be, it projects them as formidable opponents of the existing political structure. The Taliban do not want to be relegated to political insignificance like Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 in exchange for their political mainstreaming, but in the process, lost sight of their core objectives. The Taliban’s willingness to engage in talks, first with the US and now with the Afghan government, must be viewed with immense caution, instead of assured optimism.
With the US, the Taliban negotiated from a position of relative strength, knowing that the US would be desperate to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan having been unsuccessful in their war effort even after fighting for almost two decades. As for agreeing to participate in intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban is possibly hoping to capitalise on receding foreign presence in Afghanistan mandated by the deal with the US, which has rendered the group even stronger, to drive the negotiations in their favour. Thus far, the Taliban has succeeded in framing the terms of the peace process – the conditions and agendas, both.
While popular perception associates intra-Afghan talks with a power-sharing deal between the government and the Taliban, President Ghani’s remarks at a recent gathering held in Kabul indicated otherwise. In his address, he clarified that the ultimate aim of the talks would be to put an end to bloodshed and violence, in fulfilment of the will of the Afghan people. The talks must indeed be viewed as an opportunity to transform the Afghan social and political landscape, by including and reflecting local voices – especially that of the women, and other marginalised groups – in the agenda of the peace process.
While the Taliban certainly don’t represent the will of the people, so far, the government too has failed to mobilise the masses on significant questions to do with preferred political structures, the role of women in politics and other spheres of public life, and the processes of economic reorganisation and state building. A large section of people in Afghanistan remain opposed to the highly-centralised forms of governance followed by the pollical elites based in Kabul, which has perpetuated corruption, arbitrary decision-making, and political patronage based on personal rapports rather than ideological convergences.
Such a political culture has increasingly distanced the government from the people, particularly those belonging to the traditional, tribal communities. Instead of remaining dissociated with local realities of ordinary Afghans, the government must make the people a legitimising force, capable of steering the narrative of the peace process.
The implementation of the US-Taliban deal itself must facilitate substantial progress on the reconciliation front, as opposed to being used as a mere instrument to rehabilitate the Taliban, bring them into the mainstream political fold, with the population at large still disenfranchised. Therefore, while ending the cycles of violence is an essential prerequisite to peace in Afghanistan, in the absence of inclusivity, the sustainability of any peace deal will be an impossible feat to achieve. In addition, both sides in the negotiations would have to accept a veritable degree of compromise in order to arrive at any shared understanding on the future of Afghanistan.
This essay originally appeared in South Asia Weekly
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Shubhangi Pandey was a Junior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation. Her research focuses on Afghanistan particularly exploring internal political dynamics ...Read More +