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A critical stage in Afghan peace process

Merve Seren

First attempts to initiate peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to establish peace in Afghanistan came to the fore during Obama’s term. Still, the efforts between 2011 and 2013 failed. The talks planned to be held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in June 2013 were canceled by President Hamid Karzai due to the Taliban hanging the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” sign and the so-called flag at the office where the negotiations were to be conducted. The office was closed a month later, and peace negotiations were suspended for a long time. Three years later, a meeting was held with the participation of the US and China and led by Pakistan, however, the Taliban-Kabul peace meeting in 2016 wasn’t successful either.

Trump, who took office in the US the following year, brought the Afghanistan peace talks back to the agenda and made efforts to start negotiations between the government and the organization. The Ashraf Ghani administration, who supported this initiative, stated that they were ready to negotiate with the Taliban with no preconditions and also made various promises to the organization (such as the recognition of the Taliban as a political party and releasing of the Taliban elements in prison), extending an olive branch to it. However, this step taken by Ghani was not met with the necessary appreciation and approval from the Taliban; on the contrary, the Taliban once again turned its back on the Kabul government, stating that it would be addressing itself to the US only and not to Ghani.

The Taliban has abandoned its tough and uncompromising attitude since 2018, albeit in a limited way. At the least, representatives from the US and Taliban met in Doha, for the first time, for peace talks in February 2019. As a result of the negotiations, which lasted for about six months, it was announced that the US and the Taliban were close to coming to an agreement.

However, this positive mood in August 2019 shortly disappeared. The following month, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad announced that an agreement was reached between the parties and that Trump’s approval was sought. Trump declared that he had shelved the deal after a US soldier dying in the terrorist attack in Kabul.

However, in December 2019, the talks between the US and the Taliban resumed, and thus, the idea that the peace talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials had come to an end gradually gained traction, and for the first time, it was witnessed that peace negotiations with the Taliban became so tangible.

Various new decisions were made on issues such as the “reduction of violence,” “withdrawal of foreign troops from the country,” “negotiations within Afghanistan,” and “counter-terrorism guarantees” within the framework of the US-Taliban Peace Agreement negotiations. However, these decisions have brought some new problems to the agenda.

If Turkey anticipates that these negotiations are not going to succeed, it would be a failure on not only Turkey’s but also its allies and Afghanistan’s part. For this reason, Turkey must substantiate these claims and, openly and clearly, either go the whole hog or none. For this process to succeed, it’s essential that Turkey meets with all groups, including the Taliban, and makes preliminary preparations. As we know, the Istanbul conference is a nine-day meeting, and it’s impossible to resolve all problems in nine days.

The difficulty of establishing a complete and clear consensus between the Afghan government, its politicians, soldiers, and leading opinion leaders is the first issue. Although the talks were promised to be very comprehensive and inclusive, it was stated that Ghani distanced himself from other factions for a long time and acted alone. In addition, a preliminary assessment measuring the opinions, beliefs, and trust of the people regarding the peace talks was not made.

Secondly, the Taliban’s commitment to reducing violence is a promise made solely to the US itself, not to the Afghan government. In this context, the Taliban only promised not to act against the US. In fact, the official statement of the Taliban is that the strategic and security cooperation was made with the US only and that the commitment is a promise made to the US only and not to the Afghan government. In this context, even though negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government have started, we should keep in mind that a possible conflict of interest that may occur during these negotiations could rapidly evolve into violence.

Thirdly, the current situation shows that peace in Afghanistan is up to the Afghans who don’t trust each other.

And the fourth issue is the probability of instability being retriggered in the country with the foreign troops’ withdrawal and that the exchange of prisoners was carried out at a date too early.

Indeed, the ongoing peace talks in Doha have had no tangible outcome recently. This was because, although the first step of peace is a ceasefire, the Taliban didn’t even comply with the ceasefire for one whole day. Though the Taliban had previously insisted on five thousand prisoners being released, this time it’s saying that, “Let seven thousand more prisoners are released, and even the US leave the country completely, and only then will I make peace negotiations.” Whereas, although the prisoners in question who were released shouldn’t have returned to the organization, they quickly rejoined the ranks of the Taliban and were caught once more. In this context, it’s clear that the Taliban is using stalling tactics.

What would happen if the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

Biden had a meeting with Ghani an hour prior to announcing his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. It would be optimistic to expect that this decision was welcomed by the Afghan security and defense bureaucracy in general and by Ghani in particular. In fact, we could even say that this decision from Biden boosted the morale of the Taliban while demoralizing the Afghan government relatively. Although Biden previously said that he would withdraw his troops on May 1, he postponed this date to September 11. However, the issue here is not the date but the fact that he will completely withdraw all of his soldiers. If this happens, the complete withdrawal of American presence (previously over 100,000 and now around 2,500) from Afghan land will create a lack of security.

Although Afghanistan’s security and defense was, in practice, passed on to the Afghan National Security Forces in 2015, the US military presence offered a safety net and served as a deterrent against Taliban terrorism. In this context, although Biden announced that he would be maintaining the financial support and consultancy services, it’s evident that consultancy and intelligence support won’t be sufficient for the security and defense of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we must also note that CIA Director William Burns warned the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would weaken the US’s ability to gather intelligence and take action against fundamentalist threats (al-Qaeda and DAESH militants).

Another possibility is that the US is trying to bring together the Afghan government, commanders, political leaders, and similar elements by taking the decision to withdraw, and it may be assumed that the US is creating psychological pressure via the message of “Be united.” The idea to “create a common front against the Taliban” in Afghanistan may be the reason behind this. Even though there are no foreign soldiers currently, there are 45,000-50,000 special commando units in Afghanistan, as well as a human resource of approximately 250,000-300,000 army and intelligence personnel. If these human resources are well trained and managed, Afghanistan would be likely to increase its self-defense capabilities and efficiency.

What would happen if the US withdraws from Afghanistan completely? If Ghani, Rashid Dostum, Dr. Abdullah, the Hazaras, Pashtuns and other opponents are not united, Afghanistan would be dragged into a “civil war” rapidly. So to speak, Afghanistan would go right back to what Dr. Najibullah’s rule was like.

We should keep in mind that the Taliban will not be a party to the reconciliation unless there’s substantial international pressure on it and that if unity is not established in Afghanistan quickly, it’s highly likely that a civil war could break out in the country.

But, would the US really withdraw from Afghanistan? It would be a very reductionist and simple prediction to expect the US to withdraw from Afghanistan completely. As we know, Afghanistan has been one of the critical countries of the “Heartland” and “Rimland” theories. In addition, its energy capacity and underground wealth are too valuable to be underestimated. For instance, Afghanistan’s lithium capacity should never be ignored.

Similarly, the US withdrawing from Afghanistan would create such a severe security gap that countries such as Russia, China, and Iran would clearly want to fill this gap left over from the US before long. After all, would Biden, after announcing that the US is preparing for a long-term strategic competition against Russia and China and that it has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for this, leave Afghanistan to these two countries right next to it?

The Istanbul talks, other actors and future of peace

Although the talks in Moscow were of a different nature from the Doha and the postponed Istanbul talks, they nevertheless raised the expectations. However, even the dialogue between Rashid Dostum and the Taliban commander alone had caused Dostum to leave the meeting. In contrast, expectations with 30-40% probability in the Moscow talks had the potential to give birth to a promising result that would reach 80-90% probability in Istanbul.

In other words, there was a hopeful expectation from Istanbul that – even if there weren’t 100% peace – there would be a 100% ceasefire, partially or for a certain period of time, like in the Bonn Conference in 2001. In this context, Istanbul was seen as a continuation of Doha and even a phase in which Doha would be implemented and more concrete actions would be taken. However, that hopeful expectation from 2-3 weeks ago has disappeared because the Taliban announced that they would not be participating in the Istanbul talks.

Why did the Taliban make such a decision? First of all, the Taliban participating in these talks may have caused some discomfort for Russia and Iran. Because Turkey playing such an active role may be considered risky for the competition among the regional forces. In this context, the possibility that the Taliban itself was sabotaged can’t be ruled out. In this respect, the discomfort of other actors, which is caused by the close relationship between Turkey and Pakistan, must be taken into account.

The second reason is the Taliban continuing to employ stalling tactics with a new excuse each time. This is because they just put forward a further excuse that they “can’t participate because the US does not leave the country.” In this sense, it’s contradictory that the Taliban both consider the Afghan government as an “American puppet” and yet isn’t willing to address itself to anybody except for the US administration.

Turkey is expected to apply pressure through Pakistan for the Taliban to join the Istanbul talks on April 24, despite all the circumstances. Likewise, the US also has to put pressure on the Taliban for the Istanbul talks. Because if the Istanbul talks aren’t carried out as they should be, it won’t be possible to talk about the future of the peace talks in Afghanistan. It seems highly likely that Afghanistan will be rapidly dragged into a civil war, and in this context, we should note that different ethnic structures (such as the Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks) are arming up under various political entities and through their own means.

For instance, Hazara Commander Ali Pur establishing an armed force of 5,000 people and the decisive impact that other actors have on forces like this is a clear indication that the civil war would spring up with a tiny spark. Allegations that Pur was an Iranian spy and that special forces were conducting an operation to capture him were recently covered in the media. Speaking of Iran, every day, there is a fight in the Iranian parliament, and the main reason for this fight is the water problem, which makes up much of the parliamentary agenda, and the pressure on the government. In this respect, it shouldn’t be forgotten that water diplomacy is a more critical issue for Iran than the Shia issue in Afghanistan.

The Moscow, Doha and (the potential) Istanbul talks being unsuccessful would result in the Taliban gaining political supremacy as well as territorial control in the country, which would deepen the country’s already fragile structure and lead to a civil war.

Undoubtedly, the Taliban will use all of its power to push the US to withdraw from the country and will want to come to the negotiating table after the fact to apply pressure. However, we could also say that the Taliban now has two different factions, “traditionalist” and “innovative,” within itself as well. Traditionalists still argue that the status [of the Taliban], which fights for the “emirate” idea, should be preserved moving forward. The mindset more open to innovation and change, on the other hand, is aware that Afghanistan today is not the same as Afghanistan from 9/11. For this reason, they haven’t been voicing demands such as an “emirate” recently, and on the contrary, they believe that they should be more tolerant.

In short, the Taliban’s desire, as well as its definition of peace, is the handing over of the entirety of the Afghan government to the Taliban. And in case the Taliban takes over the government, various practices would be put into effect, which would give religious training to the current rulers, forgive some groups, and execute others. If this happens, we may witness the outbreak of civil war, the death of at least 300,000-400,000 people, and the emergence of new migration waves that would likely consist of a minimum of 2 million refugees. Ghani, who follows much more moderate policies against the West and NATO compared to Karzai, says that he “will not wait another 2-2.5 years. Let the United Nations (UN) come and hold an election in 3-6 months; We will not interfere with the voters.”

He says that neither anybody from his team nor himself is going to be a candidate, but that no one would be able to get him out of his mansion without an election, and that he would move the matter to the parliament and from there to the Loya jirga (Grand assembly) if necessary. Dr. Abdullah, on the other hand, defends the idea of ​​a provisional government and an interim prime minister. Thus, he supports the view that the 2-2.5 years should be taken, the constitution should be reviewed again, a neutral election commission should be reestablished, preparations should be made, and a government without elections should be formed. Taliban, however, opposes both ideas; it does not accept the holding of democratic elections or the establishment of a provisional government in any way, shape, or form, and it wants to take over the cabinet. If the Taliban came to the negotiation table, it would lose; it’s currently only winning through uprisings and rebellions.

The Taliban has abandoned its tough and uncompromising attitude since 2018, albeit in a limited way. At the least, representatives from the US and Taliban met in Doha, for the first time, for peace talks in February 2019. As a result of the negotiations, which lasted for about six months, it was announced that the US and the Taliban were close to coming to an agreement.

In conclusion, the Moscow, Doha and (the potential) Istanbul talks being unsuccessful would result in the Taliban gaining political supremacy as well as territorial control in the country, which would deepen the country’s already fragile structure and lead to a civil war. Likewise, the failure of these talks in question may lead to new actors establishing their presence in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, who have seriously been interested in Afghanistan recently, have money, and will even bring different actors such as Israel into the country. When all of these possibilities are considered, the most crucial thing that Turkey needs to do right now is to apply a considerable amount of pressure on the Taliban, along with the US and the international community, to bring it to the negotiation table in Istanbul.

If Turkey anticipates that these negotiations are not going to succeed, it would be a failure on not only Turkey’s but also its allies and Afghanistan’s part. For this reason, Turkey must substantiate these claims and, openly and clearly, either go the whole hog or none. For this process to succeed, it’s essential that Turkey meets with all groups, including the Taliban, and makes preliminary preparations. As we know, the Istanbul conference is a nine-day meeting and it’s impossible to resolve all problems in nine days. Therefore, it’s indispensable for both Turkey to pressure, through Pakistan, and persuade the Taliban to attend the Istanbul talks and the US to give a clear and open message to the Taliban that “If you want us out of Afghanistan, then you will come to Istanbul.”

After all, we should keep in mind that the Taliban will not be a party to the reconciliation unless there’s substantial international pressure on it and that if unity is not established in Afghanistan quickly, it’s highly likely that a civil war could break out in the country.

*The author is an assistant professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, with her research focusing on security, defense and intelligence.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of TheAsiaLive.​​​​​​​

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