Afghanistan: Taliban and government talk, but fighting feeds distrust

Afghanistan: Taliban and government talk, but fighting feeds distrust

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban and the Afghan government have traveled a long road, rhetorically and practically, to reach the negotiating table in Qatar. With peace and/or regime change the prize, a long road ahead looms.

Hussein Sayed/AP

Abdullah Abdullah, center, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, attends the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

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September 17, 2020

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When long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks began Sept. 12 in Qatar, the government called for an immediate cease-fire. “It would be a miscalculation to think that causing more casualties would make people more hopeful about peace,” warned Abdullah Abdullah.

The Taliban disagreed. “It does not make sense to end 20 years of war in one hour,” a spokesman said.

On Thursday, the government said at least 27 security personnel and 36 Taliban fighters had been killed in conflict across five provinces in the previous 24 hours. One result is that a substantial trust deficit has grown even deeper; any new power-sharing arrangement could take months or even years to negotiate.

Analysts say the highest risk in the negotiations is to the U.S.-backed government if the talks culminate in de facto “regime change.”

“What does a peace process look like with fighting at such high levels?” says Andrew Watkins at the International Crisis Group. “On both sides, this is about more than just a lack of trust,” says Mr. Watkins. “Why would the Taliban allow the government space to make itself more effective?” he asks. “It’s terrible to think that the cost of that strategic maneuver is continuing to kill fellow Afghans, day after day.”

London

At the negotiating table, days into landmark intra-Afghan talks to end decades of war, platitudes about the need for peace are interwoven with haggling over procedure.

But perhaps more tellingly, on Afghanistan’s weary battlefields, the killing continues, as if negotiation teams from the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents were not now meeting in Doha, Qatar.

On Thursday, the government in Kabul said at least 27 security personnel and 36 Taliban fighters had been killed in conflict across five provinces in the previous 24 hours.

One result of the continued violence is that a substantial trust deficit has grown even deeper, as each side seeks to delegitimize the other and maximize its gains in any new power-sharing arrangement, which could take months or even years to negotiate.

Even as talks began Sept. 12 – when a government call for an immediate cease-fire was rejected by the Taliban – the defense ministry counted Taliban attacks across 18 of the country’s 34 provinces.


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“It would be a miscalculation to think that causing more casualties would make people more hopeful about peace,” warned Abdullah Abdullah, chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation.

Yet Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem Wardak said an enduring cease-fire first required a broader negotiated deal. “It does not make sense to end 20 years of war in one hour,” he told ToloNews Wednesday.

At stake: Regime change

The stakes could not be higher amid a U.S.-engineered peace process designed to bring the jihadist Taliban back into the halls of power and pave the way for withdrawal from America’s longest-ever war.

Analysts say the highest risk in the negotiations is to the U.S.-backed democratic republic led by President Ashraf Ghani – and the Western-style freedoms it espouses – if the talks culminate in de facto “regime change.”

“The first big question is: Are they going to be able to reach a cease-fire anytime soon, in these next few weeks? And if not, what does a peace process look like with fighting at such high levels?” says Andrew Watkins, the senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“On both sides, this is about more than just a lack of trust,” says Mr. Watkins. Both sides “are actively seeking to deny legitimacy to the other side. … Very coldly, the Taliban know that the Afghan government looks weak and ineffective every time it has security problems.”

And any cease-fire is a gift to Kabul, enabling it to address Afghans’ many other problems, if it is not preoccupied with the war.

“So on one level, why would the Taliban allow the government space to make itself more effective?” asks Mr. Watkins. “It’s terrible to think that the cost of that strategic maneuver is continuing to kill fellow Afghans, day after day.”

Hussein Sayed/AP

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.

U.S. withdrawal

These unprecedented intra-Afghan talks are the result of a deal signed last February between the United States and the Taliban ­– itself an agreement that required nearly a year of diplomacy – that the Taliban have trumpeted as “victory.” It called for complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces, in exchange for the Taliban not allowing Afghan soil to be used for attacks abroad.

The Pentagon says the remaining 8,600 American troops will be whittled down to 4,500 by November.

For the Taliban, this sense of triumph has exacerbated the trust deficit by raising expectations that it can achieve, with little compromise, its core demands of greater Islamic rule and renewed legitimacy inside a system where it has significant control.

“This is their [most] golden time in the last 20 years. … They are coming with the attitude of the winners,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based political analyst and expert on the Taliban, speaking of the arch-conservative group.

“You see [the Taliban] brought unity among their lines, they brought everyone on board with peace talks, they brought legitimacy to their side,” says Mr. Amiri. “They got more than what they expected in the last two years, both militarily and politically, so that’s a big boost to their morale when they come to the negotiating table.”

“Now it’s the Taliban’s turn”

The Taliban’s new chief negotiator, the influential religious scholar Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, told both negotiating teams Tuesday night that the Taliban aimed to “make decisions together” to establish an “independent, Islamic system that is inclusive of all Afghans.”

But another senior Taliban negotiator told CBS, anonymously, that only the Taliban have a back-up plan if talks fail: “Our Plan A is a peaceful political solution, and Plan B, definitely a military takeover.”

The current government, kept afloat by U.S. and other donor aid, is “totally corrupt and incapable,” the senior Talib official said. Any coalition would be a “sinking ship [that would] drown the Taliban as well.”

“Now it’s the Taliban’s turn” to lead Afghanistan for three to five years, he said, during which the militant group would work with foreigners and “especially the U.S.,” to “prove that, as the Taliban was a hard enemy, in the future we will be a solid and trustworthy partner.”

The Kabul side aims to preserve the democratic status quo, which includes significant women’s rights, girls’ education, and media independence that have grown since the U.S. military ousted the Taliban in late 2001. But it has been plagued by corruption, crippled by political gridlock, and sapped by years of losing battles to the Taliban.

The militants, capitalizing on advances against American, NATO, and Afghan forces, have brought roughly half the country under their control and want back into the halls of power.

Rahmat Gul/AP

Afghan security personnel and municipal workers at the site of an explosion in Kabul, Sept. 9, 2020. Ten people were killed in the attack on the convoy of First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who this week called the Taliban “small, ugly and violent.”

Afghan women

On the day the Taliban was toppled in 2001, and their strict brand of Islamic law lifted overnight, women danced in Kabul, removed their burkas to reveal their faces, and girls denied an education emerged from secret home schools.

“Now the time is over that the women of Afghanistan – Afghan girls in the bazaar or streets or stadiums – are whipped,” Gen. Asadullah Khalid, the acting defense minister, said Thursday, echoing the hopes of many Afghans as he called to “preserve all achievements” at the intra-Afghan talks.

“Afghan women in the past two decades became pilots, doctors, teachers, ministers, and deputies,” he said. “We don’t want a setback.”

The Taliban say they have now evolved, will welcome women to high posts, allow girls education, and say they want to work with foreign donors to rebuild the country.

The government also is seeking to delegitimize the Taliban as “terrorists” responsible for the vast majority of military and civilian deaths who don’t deserve recognition.

First Vice President Amrullah Saleh – whose convoy was targeted by an explosion on Sept. 9, killing 10 civilians – this week called the Taliban “small, ugly and violent” and said they would be integrated into Afghan society by melting in a “community furnace.”

Stonewalling on prisoners

The U.S-Taliban deal in February committed the Afghan government to release 5,000 captured Taliban fighters, in trade for the release of 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces. But the decision was made without the consent of the government, because the Taliban refused at the time to talk to what it called a “U.S. puppet” regime.

The prisoner releases, meant to build trust and take place within days, instead took six months to complete, due largely to government stonewalling. Since the February signing, Taliban attacks killed more than 3,500 members of the Afghan security forces and 775 civilians, President Ghani said in late July.

The U.S.-Taliban deal did require the Taliban to cease attacks on withdrawing American and other foreign forces. But for Afghans, the agreement stipulated, a “cease-fire” would only be an agenda item during intra-Afghan talks.

“This moment that we sit here, tens of young people are being martyred, women widowed, children orphaned,” the government’s chief negotiator Masoom Stanekzai told both sides Tuesday night. “The biggest and most important priority of our people is to stop the bloodshed in the country.”

But for the Taliban, continuing violence is their primary leverage, analysts say, and there is little reason for urgency.

“The Taliban is a body of logic; emotion doesn’t play much part,” says Mr. Amiri, the Kabul analyst. “Trust building wouldn’t have much impact. …

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“They have a very firm sense of things that they discuss, and they are thinking and they want to achieve it,” says Mr. Amiri.

“There is going to be some sort of regime change, whether we like it or not,” he adds. “Because if you are talking about the future state, what is that, then?”

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