The head of Afghanistan’s new peace council said yesterday that he is optimistic that intra-Afghan talks can start in the coming weeks, but increased levels of violence and details of prisoner releases may slow the start of talks. Chairman Abdullah added that the government’s negotiating team will be inclusive and represent common values in talks with the Taliban. The team “will be diverse and represent all walks of life,” Abdullah said. Afghans and analysts have expressed concern that without an inclusive negotiating team, the country’s hard-won, democratic gains could be compromised for the sake of a deal with the Taliban.
Abdullah expressed a healthy dose of optimism about the possibility for peace, while also acknowledging that compromises will have to be made along the way—and that many obstacles remain.
“Chairman Abdullah struck a good note on the need for inclusivity and compromise to end the decades-long war,” said Scott Worden, USIP’s director for Afghanistan. “Not only do women need to be included, but representatives from across the political spectrum, including the Taliban. He made effective points about wars not ending when only one side compromises.”
The chairman’s remarks came as last week was the deadliest for Afghan forces in the 19-year war, according to a senior Afghan official. The government accused the Taliban of carrying out 422 attacks over a seven-day period that led to the death of 291 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) personnel and 42 civilians.
"The Taliban's commitment to reduce violence is meaningless, and their actions inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace," said Afghan National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal. The Taliban, for their part, have rejected the government’s accusations, saying that the group was simply defending itself from ANDSF attacks.
“We all understand that [rising levels of violence] put under question [the] sustainability of hoping for getting to the negotiating table,” said Abdullah. “The continuation of the current level of violence, which is not justified at all, it makes the people worry. I am extremely concerned.” The USIP-hosted discussion was Abdullah’s first public event since becoming chairman of the newly established High Council of National Reconciliation (HCNR).
The violence has led to fear that intra-Afghan talks could be derailed before they even commence. “Both sides understand the principle of ‘fight and talk,’ and belligerents around the world often seek leverage by increasing violence before negotiations start,” but “the violence is gravely undermining the parties’ faith in each other,” said Johnny Walsh, a senior expert on Afghanistan at USIP.
Getting the Intra-Afghan Talks Going
After an extended dispute over the results of the 2019 presidential elections between Abdullah, who was the chief executive of the previous government, and incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, the two rivals agreed in May to a power-sharing deal, which led to the establishment of the HCNR. The Ghani-Abdullah agreement removed a major obstacle to intra-Afghan talks, Worden said.
Two weeks after Ghani told a USIP-hosted online audience that his government was accelerating the release of Taliban prisoners, Abdullah said that 75 percent of Taliban prisoners requested to be released by the group have been. The prisoner exchange issue has represented another major stumbling block to kicking off intra-Afghan talks.
Lessons from peace processes around the world demonstrate that peace talks are more likely to achieve success if they are inclusive, noted USIP Vice President for Asia Andrew Wilder. Many Afghans, including President Ghani, bristled at their lack of inclusion in the talks that led to the U.S.-Taliban deal in February. Abdullah continuously reiterated that the Afghan negotiating team will be inclusive and represent the “common values of the majority of the Afghan people.” He said that all sections of society—including women, youth, and minorities—will be represented in the talks.
“We cannot achieve peace with sacrificing the basic and fundamental rights of our people,” Abdullah said. He also said at several points that it would not be President Ghani or himself who will decide on the terms for peace, but the Afghan people.
‘Far Apart’ on Governance
Once intra-Afghan talks begin, negotiators on both sides will have to deal with the vast disparities in views on governance. The Afghan government aims to retain “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and united republic,” as President Ghani said. On the other hand, the Taliban’s view is that Afghanistan should be an Islamic emirate with the Afghan people owing their loyalty to an Islamic government.
“It’s not like the difference between nine and 10. On certain issues we are far apart,” said Abdullah.
While side-stepping a question about what trade-offs the Afghan government delegation would be willing to make, Abdullah said that if there’s one lesson from the last four decades of war, it’s that there is no military solution to the conflict. That realization should force the parties to hammer out a mutually acceptable agreement, he said.
He did, however, note that compromises would have to be made and not just by the Afghan government side. “If there are compromises, they have to be on both sides and for the sake of the common interest of the broader public.”
U.S. Troop Withdrawal
The U.S.-Taliban deal says intra-Afghan negotiation must start—not be concluded—for withdrawal to happen. This stipulation has led to concern that the Taliban may just wait out the United States and then attempt to take control of the country by force.
In response to media questions on the U.S. troop withdrawal, Abdullah sought to allay these fears. “It [the U.S.-Taliban deal] is condition-based, there are other conditions as well including the presence of al Qaida, ISIS, and other troops and the way to deal with it and also Afghanistan not being [a] base for terrorist groups, which poses threats to our citizens as well as our international partners.” He also noted that it would be a “great mistake” for the Taliban to drag out negotiations.
“Four decades of war does not mean that we cannot solve [the conflict] … it should compel all of us to look back and come to a conclusion that there is no military solution for the war and that takes more than one side,” said Abdullah.