Afghanistan’s government is optimistic that the delayed peace talks with the Taliban can start soon, acting Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar told an online audience. Atmar’s comments are the latest sign that one reason for the five-month delay, disputes over the two sides’ release of prisoners they have been holding, may be nearly resolved. Taliban attacks on government forces have continued, and civilian casualties have remained high, as the two sides have wrestled over conditions for starting the talks as envisioned in a February agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

Afghan authorities assembled Taliban prisoners at the Bagram military base before releasing them in May. The government has sought assurances that released Taliban fighters will not return to the battlefield. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Afghan authorities assembled Taliban prisoners at the Bagram military base before releasing them in May. The government has sought assurances that released Taliban fighters will not return to the battlefield. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

“We are much closer to the start of a peace negotiation than we have ever been,” Atmar said in an online conversation with longtime Afghanistan expert Andrew Wilder, a USIP vice president. “Hopefully we will soon be done with all the initial hurdles” to formal negotiations, many of which have turned around prisoner releases, Atmar said. “We are pretty much optimistic” that talks can begin as early as next week, he added.

Atmar has been an enduring figure in Afghan governments since the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. He has served in four ministerial posts and took up the foreign ministry portfolio in April after serving four years as President Ashraf Ghani’s national security advisor. During an hour-long conversation, Atmar responded to questions from an audience that included journalists, Afghanistan specialists and representatives of nongovernment organizations working in Afghanistan. He underscored established themes of the government during the months-long effort to set conditions for an Afghan peace process, including an appeal for an immediate “humanitarian ceasefire” in the war, which the Taliban have refused.

Can the Taliban Compromise?

Atmar’s remarks come as the Taliban this week announced added members of their negotiating team for the talks. The team includes a significant number of the movement’s top leadership, and thus may be expected to negotiate authoritatively on its behalf, according to Johnny Walsh, a USIP expert and former State Department advisor on Afghanistan.

Still, it remains unclear whether the Taliban are open to concessions on their demand that the current Afghan state be replaced with an Islamic “emirate” governed by their interpretation of religious law. To a reporter’s question, Atmar voiced hope that peace talks with the Taliban can find a compromise on the form of a future government. But, he said, “the will of the Afghan people” is to retain “a constitutional democracy” and “an inclusive political system.”

“Our people always talk about not only preserving, but also advancing, the achievements of human rights, democracy and women’s rights of the past 19 years,” Atmar said. “The question that I would have for the Taliban is, are you going to respect the will of the Afghan people or not?”

Pakistan’s ‘Key Role’

Taliban political figures held talks with Pakistani civilian and military officials this week and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said “Pakistan is eager” to see a start of Afghan  to see an intra-Afghan dialogue start soon to ensure regional peace and stability,” Qureshi said in a statement after the meeting.

In the peace effort, “Pakistan has a key role because of its significant influence with the Taliban,” Atmar said. He expressed hope that Pakistani authorities will remain fully supportive of a peace process that produces the “end state” that he said is required for a stable peace: an independent, unified and democratic Afghanistan that respects human and women’s rights.

A sustainable peace also will require that neither Afghanistan, nor “the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan” can “become a safe haven of international terrorism,” Atmar said. He repeated the Kabul government’s demand that this include the “departure of all foreign fighters,” such as al-Qaeda members who have long had ties to, and protection from, the Taliban and allied movements in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s adjacent borderlands.

Atmar expressed a concern that many analysts have voiced for years about efforts within Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishments to maintain proxy forces and influence governance in Afghanistan. He abstained from mentioning any country or constituency. “There is still a risk that … certain circles would want to pursue not an end state that the Afghan people demand,” Atmar said, but rather “might try to define the end state in terms of their narrow, political, national security interests. That will be a serious danger to the peace process in Afghanistan.”

U.S. Drawdown, Prospective Talks

The United States has been pulling back its forces in Afghanistan since the February accord, which requires that the U.S. contingent in the country be reduced to 8,600 troops. Analysts have said that reduction weakens the Kabul government’s position in peace talks. To reporters’ questions about that issue, Atmar repeated the government’s concern that the drawdown should be “conditions-based.” One condition of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February is that negotiations between the government and the Taliban include “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”

The two sides have been moving toward talks even as the Taliban continue heavy attacks on government forces. Taliban assaults this month alone have killed 170 pro-government soldiers and allies, and 107 civilians, according to a count maintained by the New York Times.

Mohammed Haneef Atmar has been an enduring figure, serving in four cabinet positions, in Afghanistan’s post-2001 government. He spoke from Kabul.
Mohammed Haneef Atmar has been an enduring figure, serving in four cabinet positions, in Afghanistan’s post-2001 government.

Atmar said 12 countries have offered to host negotiations between the two sides—a reflection, he said, of strong support throughout the region. He confirmed the talks will be rotated through several countries, which he did not name, to “further build … regional consensus” over the process. Word of the rotating venues for talks was first released by the senior Taliban peace negotiator, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai.

The government’s lead negotiator, Masoom Stanekzai, told USIP in April that his team will consult widely with Afghan communities, notably women, in shaping its positions in the process. (The two lead negotiators are members of the ethnic Pashtun Stanekzai tribe and were born in nearby districts of Logar province but are not known to be related.)

Afghan women, civil society and youth leaders have expressed concern that the Taliban have shown little interest in compromising on their demand for a religious state that would threaten human rights. USIP has worked with Afghan communities and the government to encourage a broad inclusion of Afghans in shaping the negotiations—a vital element in the viability of any peace process.

During the discussion, Atmar included these points:

  • Afghanistan’s government is “working very closely with China” in seeking the peace talks, Atmar said. “China has a legitimate interest in security in the region” and “understands that the Afghan peace process is a strategic investment in countering international terrorism in the region.”
  • The Afghan government is working with the ex-Soviet Central Asian nations to its north in supporting the peace process and in building Afghanistan as a regional “hub” for commerce and investment that can help connect Central Asian nations to more distant markets. Atmar noted that he was planning to travel within hours to Uzbekistan for discussions to advance that goal.
  • In releasing Taliban members it has held prisoner, the Afghan government has confronted specific concerns of other governments, notably Germany and Australia, whose soldiers serving in Afghanistan have been killed by those Taliban. “Some of our international partners do have concerns about the release of certain individuals,” he said, underscoring the Kabul government’s plea that those released not be permitted to return to the battlefield.

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