Strange are the ways of the Afghans who make moves towards peace under the shadow of violence.
Although this quest for peace has long oscillated between hope and despair, this week the two meetings in Doha (the US–Taliban process and the intra-Afghan meeting) undisputedly yielded major progress towards ending violence in Afghanistan.
The two-day meeting between the Taliban and Afghan politicians and activists, which had been co-sponsored by Qatar and Germany, ended with a call for avoiding civilian casualties and an understanding that a process between the Afghans was the surest path to peace. Meanwhile, the seventh round of US–Taliban negotiations also concluded on a positive note amid reports that the two sides had agreed on a draft deal.
The developments happened in the backdrop of a massive Taliban attack in Ghazni whose civilian casualties included a number of children. Last week, the insurgent group carried out a major strike in Kabul. The Taliban, while continuing peace talks in Doha, defend these attacks as part of their “fight for freedom” against “foreign occupation.” Whatever they say, these attacks are clearly meant to underscore that the Taliban are strong when it comes to use of violence. It was probably a way – and a cruel way – to strengthen the group’s bargaining position at the parleys in Doha.
While the attacks raise doubts about Taliban’s commitment to peace among the ordinary people, but there is no denying the significance of intra-Afghan meeting in Doha and the continuing US–Taliban dialogue. Both represent gradual progress towards a political settlement of the conflict, which is in its 18th year and in which over 110,000 Afghans have been killed.
The intra-Afghan meeting, which was the third interaction between Taliban and leading Afghan figures over the past few months, was important because the insurgents for the first time showed flexibility on sitting with representatives of the Afghan government in a meeting, albeit in an unofficial and personal capacity. They had so far been refusing to meet them for being “US puppets.” An earlier attempt to host a meeting in April in Doha failed because of Taliban reservations over the delegation from Kabul. The other two meetings took place in Moscow under a different format.
The statement issued after nearly 14 hours of protracted and intense negotiations over its text between the two sides said: “All participants have full consensus that achieving sustainable and a dignified peace, which is the demand of the Afghan people, is only possible via Afghan-inclusive negotiations.”
The statement, which appealed for reduction in hostilities, contained a promise by Taliban that they would not attack “religious centers, schools, hospitals, educational centers, bazaars, water dams and work places.”
The statement contains several other provisions related to retaining the Islamic character of the country, the territorial integrity of Afghanistan, respect for values, ending external interference and humanitarian gestures like unconditional release of elderly, disabled and ill inmates. Still, it was silent on the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for September. This was important because negotiation on the future political order is key to any settlement and this issue could become a major sticking point in future engagement.
The other shortcomings in the statement relate to the vague stance on women’s rights and silence on media freedoms. On women rights the statement said: “Women’s rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs within the framework of Islamic values” will be assured. The catch in this commitment lies in how women rights within the Islamic framework are interpreted.
Separately, sharing the Taliban view on media freedoms, the group’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen in an interview said: “We agree with the freedom of the press within the structure of the Islamic principles. We want it and it is necessary for society, because media monitors the veins of society like a physician and then recommends a solution, but freedom of the press should respect the faith and it should be used for the structure and construction of society, not for destruction of individuals and society.” Again, lots of caveats.
Another important aspect of this statement and its associated promises is that it is non-binding on the parties and recommendatory in character, which again raises question about their seriousness in abiding by the understanding reflected in it.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the meeting and its outcome was promising as some described it as “a call for peace and stability” or “a road map for peace.”
Meanwhile, US–Taliban talks that began on June 29 continued till July 9 with a two-day pause for the intra-Afghan meeting. Although US Special Envoy for Afghan reconciliation Amb Zalmay Khalilzad did not participate in the Afghan negotiations, he took part in the opening and closing sessions, and mingled with the participants on the side lines of the meeting.
The US–Taliban talks, which are focused on four elements – counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, a ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks – have apparently yielded a draft agreement, which both sides have referred back to their respective leaderships for consent and approval.
Taliban’s chief negotiator Abbas Stanekzai, according to Afghan media, said disagreements between the two sides have ended and an agreement will be signed in the near future. “There is a draft agreement which needs to be finalized. When it is finalized, we will share it with media,” said Stanekzai.
Amb Khalilzad, who had described the latest round as the most productive of all the seven held so far, before leaving Doha tweeted that he was “headed to China now and then will return to Washington to report and consult on the Afghan Peace Process.”
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org