On Saturday 12th September 2020, the Afghan Government and Taliban sat down in Qatar for the formal intra-Afghan peace talks. It is being hailed as a momentous breakthrough in reaching a peace settlement in Afghanistan. A stable political future for Afghanistan, effective law enforcement and social inequality, namely women’s rights will be on the agenda.
Prior to this, a US-Taliban security agreement was reached in February of this year committing the Taliban to Intra-Afghan negotiations. To allow these talks to happen, the US accepted the Taliban’s request for all American troops to withdraw from the country, bringing an end to its longest war.
Despite both sides agreeing to formal negotiations, the complications persisted. The biggest of which was a prisoner exchange. There was to be an exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 members of the Afghan forces in a 10-day window. This took 6 months. The negotiations reportedly went down to the minute the plane took off with the final few prisoners, which included persuading them to get haircuts to look presentable.
So far it is clear that the Taliban want power. One senior negotiator claimed that the Afghan government was a ‘sinking ship’ and a coalition would result in the downfall of the Taliban too. He stated that it was ‘the Taliban’s turn’ to take control. They are trying to prove they have the capacity to be a legitimate global player, ‘we will prove that as the Taliban was a hard enemy, in the future we will be a solid and trustworthy partner’. Claims that those in the West and many in Afghanistan I am sure, will find hard to believe. Other negotiators have agreed that the group should be given a share of the power, some ministries to run and the integration of Taliban into the national security forces. This compromise is promising sign and does seem to be a realistic option to bring stability. However, negotiators on the same side supporting different goals does not instil a great sense of confidence.
Whilst these talks are of huge significance, a lot still stands in the way off a meaningful outcome. Perhaps the most obvious is the inherent differences between the two sides. The Afghan Government and Taliban will have to address their fundamental differences on ideology, power-sharing, justice and integration of the Taliban into national security forces. The Taliban must also be willing to compromise on its desire to recreate the Islamic Emirate for them to show they are participating seriously.
The Taliban are accurate in their assessment of the weakness of the Afghan Government. There was dispute over the outcome of the 2019 election and divisions over the acceptance of the US-Taliban agreement. Fractures within the Afghan government weaken its ability to form a unified front in negotiations. Corruption is rife and their lack of ability to exert control over much of the country is worrying. Warlords, powerful officials and politicians representing larger minority ethnic groups could challenge the Government on agreements made with the Taliban.
Issues also lie within the Taliban. The large number of cells and web-like structure of the group was a reason for their success in the war but may well be their downfall in peace talks. Different factions of the group will need to be acknowledged or accommodated in negotiations, adding to the complexity. Some have already refused to acknowledge the agreement between the Taliban and the US, whilst others may try to strengthen ties with IS. Further splintering will only hinder efforts.
The most worrying prediction is that the Taliban could prolong negotiations to keep favour with the US until it withdraws its troops, allowing the group to attempt to overthrow the Government. The current escalation in violence highlights the organisations apparent lack of ability to control its members. This being said, the chief negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani is reported to carry significant influence that may be able to keep even the most distant cells united.
There is hope yet for a successful outcome to these peace talks. However, it is important to remain cautious, many challenges still stand in the way of peace.