The intra-Afghan negotiations that began on Saturday represent a watershed moment in the war: the first direct, official talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These historic talks commenced 19 years and one day after al-Qaida's 9/11 terrorist attacks drew the United States into Afghanistan's civil war. Just getting the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban to the table is an accomplishment. The main reason the talks materialized is the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February of this year; that agreement delivered a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops, which met the Taliban’s years-long precondition for opening talks with the Afghan government.

Members of the Afghan government delegation, including Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, during the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020. (Ron Przysucha /U.S. State Department)
Members of the Afghan government delegation, including Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, during the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020. (Ron Przysucha /U.S. State Department)

As hard as it has been to get to talks, concluding them will likely be harder. To reach a durable settlement, the Afghan parties will need to address underlying tensions that are the root causes of decades of violence. USIP’s Afghanistan experts explain what you need to know as the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.

1. Successful intra-Afghan negotiations offer the United States the most responsible way to end America’s longest war.

Vikram Singh: Getting to this point has not been easy. American officials spent a decade trying. U.S. negotiator Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad relied on a leverage paradox: the threat of U.S. forces withdrawing pushed the Afghan government to accept Taliban preconditions while the risk that American forces might stay, if only to conduct limited counterterrorism operations, focused the Taliban on a political settlement as a desirable path to their goals.

Washington remains the most powerful actor in the Afghan conflict, but it is not a party to these talks among Afghans as they try to resolve 40 years of civil war stretching back to the 1979 Soviet invasion. From the U.S. standpoint, success looks like an Afghan peace that enables an end to the U.S. combat role and ensures al-Qaida, ISIS, and other terrorist groups cannot operate freely.

The first concern for the U.S. will simply be sustaining the talks. A reduction in violence—like that seen after the U.S.-Taliban framework deal in February—is probably necessary. Another issue to watch will be how the parties address the future of security forces both during the process and in a final settlement. Issues like security force integration, demobilization of fighters, and how integrated Afghan security forces will enforce a long-term cessation of hostilities and fight terrorists will all bear on core U.S. interests. American officials will want to influence how Afghan forces work with international partners both during the peace process and after any agreement.

U.S. officials will watch how intra-Afghan decisions shape Afghanistan’s economic system and its commitment to fundamental human rights. Washington’s willingness to marshal international economic assistance for Afghanistan provides key leverage since the Taliban, the government, and other Afghan factions all seek long-term international assistance. Looming over all specific issues is the future governance model for Afghanistan. The United States will want to ensure Afghans increase security and that terrorist groups cannot enhance their safe havens during any possible interim government and constitutional reform process.

Across all of these issues, American leaders should signal what Washington needs in order to keep the U.S. and its partners engaged. U.S. officials also need to be clear about how the United States expects to partner with a new Afghan government to help enforce a peace agreement and meet American counterterrorism requirements.

2. This is the first time the warring parties in the Afghan conflict will be directly negotiating.

Scott Smith: The talks that have just begun between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha are of singular importance because they will be the first time since conflict began in Afghanistan that direct and formal talks will take place between the actual belligerents to the conflict. The Geneva process in the 1980s that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops was negotiated between the Communist-backed government in Kabul and Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States serving as guarantors. The mujahedeen factions who had fought the Soviet-backed Kabul government were never formally involved. Their exclusion contributed to a civil war in the 1990s that led to the rise of the Taliban.

The Bonn negotiations that followed the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 were held among the feuding Afghan factions who had been party to the civil war in the 1990s—basically the mujaheddin factions that had been excluded at Geneva—but excluded the Taliban themselves. In Doha, for this first time, representatives of the main Afghan parties to this longstanding conflict will engage with each other. Their task will be to finally find a political formula in which they can live together and resolve their conflicts without violence. It will not be easy, but they will hopefully approach this task with an understanding that this is a historic opportunity.

3. The Afghan government and Taliban will have to reconcile their fundamental differences over the country’s system of government.

Scott Worden: The most dominant discussion among Afghans in the lead up to these talks has been about what system of government a peaceful Afghanistan should have. The Afghan government, and a large majority of citizens, strongly support the current “Islamic Republic” defined by a democratic process for choosing government leaders, separation of powers between independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and equal rights for women and men to participate in the political process. There is a strong determination among government and civil society leaders to “protect the gains” made in civil and political rights since the 2004 constitution was adopted.

The Taliban call themselves an “Emirate” and have espoused a core goal of establishing an “Islamic system.” They have not defined what may need to be changed in the current constitution to make a government truly Islamic in their view. But the prevailing assumption is that a Taliban-run government would look very much like the restrictive regime they established in the late 1990s, which was led by unelected mullahs and denied women’s rights and most civil liberties Afghans enjoy today. Taliban spokesmen have tried to assuage doubters with a deliberately vague assertion that they believe in “all women’s rights and civil rights that are provided by Islam” without discussing what, exactly those rights are.

The starkly divergent positions of the two sides on the nature of the state raise two important questions for the talks. First, will the Taliban accept popular elections as the main way to choose the country’s leaders? As one of the Afghan negotiators put it after the opening day of talks, President Ghani may have been elected with low voter turnout, but Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada was selected with no voter turnout. Second, who decides what laws are in accordance with Islam? The current constitution states that no law may be contrary to the principles of Islam, but clearly relies on secular legislation to govern the state and empowers the non-religious Supreme Court to interpret them. By contrast, the Taliban regime required that all laws be derived from Sharia, which could plausibly be one of their core arguments in the coming months and represent a much more restrictive standard.

Ultimately, it will be important to look beyond general statements about preserving rights in theory to how each side plans to interpret rights in practice during talks.

4. For an agreement to be durable, it must protect and promote Afghan women’s rights.

Belquis Ahmadi: Despite widespread uncertainty, the intra-Afghan negotiations are a reason for hope. After four decades of conflict, the warring Afghan parties are set to discuss an end to the war to achieve stability, peace, and unity. A successful negotiation will benefit all Afghans, but this agreement must protect women in particular.

A settlement must recognize and honor the sacrifices that Afghan women have made. For decades they have held society together, raised a new generation of Afghans, and have fought for—in high offices and in the streets—a peaceful future for every Afghan. Afghan women’s rights activists have led international campaigns calling attention to the plight of women and the fragility of civil society, have launched petitions, and written letters to world leaders and the Taliban demanding transparency in the process and an end to violence. Unlike 20 years ago, Afghan women today are working in all sectors of society, including education, health care, security, economic and social development, and across government.

As negotiations proceed, there is even greater need for women’s contribution at all levels. Women must be engaged in rebuilding the country, in implementing and monitoring a settlement, and in reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Women must continue to participate in the full social, political, and economic life of Afghanistan, protecting this is the duty of all parties.

Furthermore, preventing further conflict means giving peace and human rights to all, as this strengthens Afghan society. A settlement must be inclusive of women, as without women, civil society and the state are more fragile and exclusive. A settlement that does not protect women would render the sacrifices that so many have made meaningless—and grant peace to the few while forgetting the many.

5. The Taliban are serious about talks, but don’t currently think they need to give much.

Johnny Walsh: The main goal of essentially every Afghanistan peace initiative for 10 years has been to break through the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. The U.S.-Taliban agreement finally did so by satisfying the Taliban’s longstanding precondition that the U.S. declare a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The main significance of that deal, therefore, was to make these intra-Afghan negotiations possible.

With that timetable in hand, the Taliban appear to take the long-awaited talks among Afghans quite seriously. Their negotiating team is extremely senior; their top cleric leads it, and it includes a range of top-tier figures within the group from military, diplomatic, and religious backgrounds. Their public statements about the talks further suggest a group gearing up for a meaty discussion of issues at the heart of the conflict, rather than a perfunctory or one-off meeting.

The Taliban nonetheless perceive that they enter these talks in a strong position—but seriousness about the process may not imply eagerness to compromise. A common Taliban view is that they have effectively won the war, the U.S. will soon leave, and the Taliban will be left as the strongest Afghan party. For some, this means they can demand predominance in any future government; for others, it means the main effort remains a military victory; still for others, reaching some equitable settlement is important because the war may never end without one. A successful deal will depend on the latter view prevailing. This in turn will depend on negotiators from both sides finding a formula that satisfies just enough of the Taliban’s objectives to warrant their stopping more than a quarter century of continual fighting.

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