Conflict Alerts # 159, 16 September 2020
In the news
On 12 September 2020, the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban led by Abdullah Abdullah and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar respectively, came face to face, for the first time. The much-discussed intra-Afghan dialogue process on the future of Afghanistan is expected to kickstart with this meeting. It is believed that Abdullah discussed taking the political process forward in Afghanistan, whereas Baradar insisted on establishing an Islamic system in the country.
Besides the above two, there were also the officials of Qatar, the host for the "Doha process", and Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State. The US has invested substantially in the Doha process; Pompeo was quoted to have found the meeting "a truly momentous occasion," but also adding a word of caution about the need for "hard work and sacrifice" to take this occasion forward.
On 9 September 2020, in Kabul, two days before the meeting in Doha, Amrullah Saleh, the Vice President of Afghanistan survived a bomb attack. A former intelligence chief of Afghanistan, and a strong opponent of the Taliban, Saleh was also the target of another deadly attack in July 2019. He survived the attack last year, as he did the last week's address.
Issues at large
First, the meeting between the two – Taliban and the Afghan government has been long due. The reasons behind the delay are likely to remain the primary challenge for the talks between the two, as they move forward. There is no consensus within the Afghan government on talking to the Taliban; though there was a Jirga a few weeks earlier, the decision was thrust upon, than an evolutionary one. There are political differences within the top players – for example Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and Amrullah Saleh. There are also severe reservations within sections of the society – especially amongst the liberal, mainly women. On the other side, one is not sure whether there is consensus within the Taliban in terms of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban.
Second, the US has been pressurizing the two Afghan actors to come to the negotiation table. Had it not been for the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban would not have come to Doha last week. "The Afghan-led and the Afghan-owned" process is actually pushed by the Americans. It has not evolved from below.
Third, there has been no let down in violence perpetrated by the Taliban since the last agreement with the US in February. Terrorist attacks on the State and societal targets continued in Kabul, and elsewhere in the provinces. While the Taliban is believed to primarily responsible for these violent incidents, there is also the ISIS, which remains outside the purview of the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue.
The US pressure has been the most significant factor in bringing the two – Taliban and the Afghan government together in Doha. However, the reason behind the US pressure is not an "intra-Afghan dialogue"; rather, it is guided by the decision to withdraw the American troops from Afghanistan. Where would the US stand, once its last soldier leaves Afghanistan?
The American pressure on the two actors was not balanced. The Afghan government had to yield more to the Taliban demands than vice-versa. While the Afghan government agreed to the primary Taliban demand – the release of the prisoners, did the latter made any effort to yield to the former – ceasefire?
The continuing difference between the two actors over the endgame would make or break the road from Doha to Kabul. The Taliban wants to establish an Islamic Emirate, while the Afghan government wants to continue what has been achieved so far. Is there a middle ground?