A three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and Afghan government over Eid al-Fitr expired on Tuesday. This was only the second such cessation of hostilities in the nearly two-decade war. And just two weeks ago, President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to share power after a monthslong dispute over the 2019 presidential election. These developments have injected renewed hope that a political solution, negotiated among Afghans, is still possible. USIP’s Scott Smith looks at what it all means for the peace process, when we can expect the vital intra-Afghan negotiations to begin, and what, if any, impact COVID-19 has had on peace.

Taliban fighters patrol a village bazaar in the Alingar District of Laghman Province in Afghanistan, March 13, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Taliban fighters patrol a village bazaar in the Alingar District of Laghman Province in Afghanistan, March 13, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

The Taliban and Kabul agreed to a cease-fire for the three days of Eid al-Fitr. Why did this happen and does it signal anything about the peace process?

The Taliban generally reduce violence levels around Eid holidays but they don’t always announce it. The announcement this year is significant because of the context. The Taliban have an agreement with the United States on troop reduction and eventual withdrawal. In exchange, the group agreed to not attack international forces. They have, however, maintained a high operational tempo against Afghan government forces, which has been criticized by the United States.

In mid-May, following a horrific attack against a maternity hospital in Kabul—suspected to be perpetrated by ISIS—the Afghan government said that it would no longer maintain a defensive posture and would restart offensive operations against the Taliban (the Taliban denied responsibility for the attack). The Taliban cease-fire is perhaps a signal that its leaders are aware of the risks of their high-violence strategy: the U.S. might lose patience and back out of the agreement—although this seems unlikely—and it makes them even more unpopular.

There are some reports that the Taliban are currently frustrated by the agreement because, by honoring it, they can only kill Afghans. The cease-fire statement specifically referred to the Taliban’s “commitment” and urged “the other side to honor its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste.” It seems that they want to get to negotiations after which they’ve hinted at a more serious reduction in violence while talks take place. At the same time the Taliban are demanding that the government release thousands of prisoners as a pre-condition, which the government has not fully met.

So, what has been the hold up on prisoner releases?

The prisoner release issue is an interesting one for any student of mediation. It shows how mediation designs can end up having the opposite of intended effects—in particular the perils of “constructive ambiguity.” The release of “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taliban was intended to build confidence between the two sides, even though it was part of the U.S.-Taliban deal that was negotiated without Kabul. Instead, it has become the greatest obstacle to direct negotiations. Why? The government as a practical matter did not want to give up so much leverage before talks began.

There were two additional issues of principle: first, Kabul has been annoyed since the U.S.-Taliban talks began in July 2018 that they were held without them. Second, the provision to release prisoners bound the Kabul government to a key action but did not involve that government in the decision. For President Ghani, this is a matter of principle; prisoner release is a sovereign act.

On the Taliban side, the treatment and status of their prisoners has long been one of their top concerns. Ignoring the nuance of the “up to” language, they have insisted that all 5,000 mentioned in the deal be released. (The government has an estimated 14,000 Taliban prisoners in total.) They seem unwilling to make any compromises for the sake of getting the talks started. There has recently been some movement on this question. Kabul responded to the Taliban cease-fire with a cease-fire of its own and a pledge to release an additional 2,000 prisoners in addition to the approximately 1,000 released so far. The two sides have established direct lines of communication with each other to guide further releases. So perhaps the exchange is finally beginning to have the intended confidence-building effect.

Can we expect intra-Afghan negotiations to begin anytime soon?

With the movement on the prisoner exchange, the actuality of talks is beginning to seem real. They could happen as early as next month. Now the main issue will be how to hold them in a COVID-sensitive environment. But if the two Afghan sides can summon the political will to actually engage directly with each other, there are plenty of countries who would assist in finding ways for these talks to be held without endangering the health of the negotiators. The parties already circumvented COVID problems to discuss prisoner releases in March; where there was political will, there was an operational way.

The talks could be a real chance not just to end the two-decade long conflict since the U.S. intervention, but the four-decade conflict that began with the Communist coup in 1978 leading to the Soviet occupation the following year. The Taliban have stated that one of the first issues on the negotiating agenda will be a cease-fire. This alone would bring some relief to Afghans, most of whom have spent their entire life living in war. It is a huge opportunity to change the terrible trajectory of Afghanistan’s history and it has never been closer or felt more real than it does now.

How much, if at all, has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the peace process?

What is curious is how little coronavirus seems to have impacted Afghanistan in general. (As of this writing, there have been 12,456 confirmed cases and 227 deaths.) I heard an anecdote from someone in Kabul who said that an Afghan colleague said: “If we weren’t reading about coronavirus from sources in the West nothing in Afghanistan would have changed.” There are a number of theories why this is, including under-reporting and insufficient testing. Some say that Afghanistan’s young population has perhaps limited its impact. Others still think that Afghanistan is only at the beginning of its infections and deaths will peak in the summer. 

Afghans have experienced high levels of death and violence and a low quality of life over four decades of war, which makes the impact of COVID-19 relatively smaller in the national psyche than in other countries where the loss of life is less commonplace.

The pandemic’s effect on Afghanistan is nonetheless likely to be huge. Donors have less cash; interest in propping up the Afghan government could plummet; neighbors are wracked by their own health crises. One area where there has been an effect is on the economy. Border closings in particular have forced food prices up, while lockdown restrictions have cut into the earnings of the many people who survive on daily wages. This has prompted protests against the government in a dozen provinces.

As for the effect on the peace process itself, if both parties agree to having talks, then the pandemic’s effect on the peace process will be as described above: affecting the logistics of where and how to talk. But so far, because it has not been perceived as a major issue by Afghan society, it has not had much of an effect on political attitudes. Right now, things are so complicated in Afghanistan that COVID does not always seem like the top priority.

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