It’s been over two months since President Trump announced a halt to U.S.-Taliban peace talks. In a move that could revive the moribund peace process, the Afghan government and Taliban completed a prisoner exchange that had been announced last week but then delayed. An American and Australian professor held by the Taliban were freed in return for three senior Taliban figures. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s September 28 presidential election remains undecided, further complicating peace efforts. USIP’s Scott Worden looks at what impact the prisoner exchange could have on the peace process, how regional actors have sought to fill the vacuum in the absence of the U.S.-led talks and the connection between negotiations and the election.

Mohammad Hassan, 65, inside a guarded compound in Faizabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 19, 2019. Hassan said he battled against the Soviets in the 1980s and government troops this year while fighting for the Taliban. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Mohammad Hassan, 65, inside a guarded compound in Faizabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 19, 2019. Hassan said he battled against the Soviets in the 1980s and government troops this year while fighting for the Taliban. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

What impact could the prisoner exchange have on the peace process and the U.S. role in it?

According to President Ghani, the Afghan government release of three high-level Taliban prisoners—including the brother of the Taliban’s military commander—in coordination with the Taliban release of the two professors kidnapped in 2016, as well as a number of Afghan soldiers captured by the Taliban, is intended to lead toward direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In a statement following the release, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo called the developments “hopeful signs that the Afghan war … may soon conclude through a political settlement.”

Several difficult steps would have to occur, however, before such talks become a reality. President Ghani has called for a cease-fire as a precondition to direct talks. The Taliban have said they will not talk to the government without completion of an agreement on troops with the United States. Action on one if not both points is the likely key to moving forward to direct intra-Afghan negotiations. The U.S.-Taliban negotiations remain suspended, and high-profile Taliban attacks have continued even after the prisoner release was first announced, making quick progress uncertain.

Another avenue to direct talks would be to restart a series of dialogues between the Taliban and a cross section of Afghan political and civil society representatives, which have taken place in Moscow and Doha. The prisoner exchange may be helpful in building enough confidence in the good faith of the parties to get dialogues back on track (although the next dialogue planned to take place in Beijing has been postponed). Last week’s suicide attack against civilians in Kabul will make negotiations less likely—although it is unclear if the Taliban, or other spoilers who do not want peace, carried out the attack.

What are the broader implications of Ghani’s decision to agree to the prisoner exchange?

President Ghani’s agreement to release the highest profile Taliban prisoner held by the government indicates there is strong pressure for the Afghan government to pursue peace talks. Politically, Ghani gets relatively little out of the prisoner exchange deal. It benefits the U.S. and Taliban with important captives released. But the Afghan government gained relatively lower profile prisoners and no guarantee of direct negotiations with the Taliban.

Ghani has aimed to use time and military pressure to erode the Taliban’s strength and get to a more favorable climate for the government to enter negotiations. Holding a presidential election before talks begin was part of that strategy—assuming that the result, which is still unclear, will be legitimate and convey a renewed popular mandate to the government’s negotiating position (more on the prospects for a clear outcome below). The problem has been that the U.S. timeline to reach a framework for a political settlement is faster than the Afghan government would like. Tensions between the two have caused confusion over who should appear at dialogues and negotiations and when they should occur.

Since the spontaneous Helmand Peace March that began in March 2018 and the three-day Eid cease-fire in June 2018 through now, there is growing demand from the grass roots of Afghanistan to find a way to end the war. The U.S. has expressed bipartisan war fatigue, and the U.S. applied pressure on the Afghan government to make a deal that would free the American hostage but also provide an opening for direct talks.

How are regional actors like China, Pakistan and Russia looking to facilitate negotiations in the absence of the U.S.?

While the U.S.-Taliban talks were going on, regional countries were generally supportive and didn’t get in the way. The vacuum created by the breakdown of these talks has led these countries to restart their earlier initiatives to bring Taliban and Afghan figures together. Earlier this year, Russia sponsored two dialogues with different Afghan parties and the Taliban in Moscow. This was followed up by a dialogue hosted by the Qatar and German governments in Doha. China has now planned for a follow-up dialogue in Beijing later this month. 

All of these efforts are designed to build understanding between the opposing sides of the conflict to enable official talks about a political settlement to the war. Russia and China have similar aims to the U.S. in Afghanistan: an end to violence and instability in the region and a managed exit of U.S. troops. But neither Russia nor China have significant leverage to push the Afghan sides toward a deal. Only the U.S. has the troops and money that can make a big enough difference to both the government and Taliban to get them to make major concessions necessary for peace. 

Pakistan’s interests are less clear. The Taliban continue to receive safe haven for their leadership from Pakistan and strategic advice. The Taliban simultaneously resent Pakistan’s influence and rely on their support. But fundamentally Pakistan prefers greater Taliban influence in a future Afghan government than the U.S., Russia or China, which makes Islamabad more reluctant to apply pressure to get talks started quickly.

What impact could the still-undecided presidential elections have on efforts to revitalize the peace process?

The presidential election is a divisive and complicating factor for peace. It has been nearly two months since the vote and there are still no preliminary results. The two leading candidates are Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who together have led the National Unity Government that arose out of a dispute over results in the last presidential election in 2014. 

While both leaders agree on the need for peace and want to preserve the current democratic constitutional system, they disagree on several fundamental issues about how Afghan democracy should be run. The competition between them for the presidency also reflects ethnic and regional differences in the country, with Ghani drawing support more from Pashtun areas in the south and east and Abdullah drawing support from largely non-Pashtun areas in the north and west.

Abdullah has voiced major concerns about how the Independent Election Commission (IEC) is counting votes and has withdrawn his observers from the vote counting process in protest. He claims that the IEC is not respecting its commitment to only count votes that are corroborated by biometric data connecting them to real voters, arguing that these uncorroborated votes are fraudulent. This presages another potentially grave dispute over results, which will weaken the next government’s popular mandate. That mandate will already be weak given the low turnout—less than two million, compared to eight million five years ago.

The more divided the Afghan government side is in negotiations, the more difficult it will be to get the Taliban to accept the government’s positions in negotiations. The prisoner release might be the beginning of a new strategy for a peace process, but even if he wins re-election, Ghani will have slim popular mandate to bring this strategy and the difficult decisions it will require to a conclusion.

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