Afghan peace now a waiting gameWritten by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
The Inter-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) that started last September between the Taliban and the Afghan government turns out to be a protracted waiting game.
The talks began due to great urgency and expectations of the Afghan people, who are eager to see the end of some four decade-long of devastating war with great hopes that the IAN will bring peace.
The Taliban had a two-point agenda: American and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces to leave Afghanistan, and implementation of syariah in the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani asserts bringing peace to the war-torn country, but that he is the country's elected leader until his term ends in 2024. The Jamiyat Party of Afghanistan suggests that a transitional government takes over to facilitate peace.
Ghani's continuity almost certainly depends on the continued stay of American troops, currently at 5,000 (reduced from 100,000 deployed under the Obama administration), which is enough to deter a Taliban offensive.
Being under United States occupation, the realities are such that no significant decision is made in Kabul without American approval. The Afghan army is currently on the American payroll amounting to over US$5 billion per year, a sum that Kabul cannot pay from its own meagre budget.
The Doha talks have hitherto made no progress simply because all sides were awaiting the US presidential election results.
President Donald Trump has declared that the US troops will leave Afghanistan in near terms without specifying a date, but March has been mentioned as the target date. Now that he has lost the election, the waiting continues until the new president takes office. The Taliban are also waiting for renewed American assurance on the February 2020 agreement they signed with the Trump administration.
The Taliban have refused to sign a ceasefire agreement to pave the way for a peace pact, and have chosen the path of violence.
They have stepped up guerilla attacks against Afghan forces and caused heavy civilian casualties.
Prior to the February agreement, Taliban attacks on Afghan forces also invoked a US military response, which kept the violence within limits, but casualty rates had also become heavier since then. For over two months, the Doha talks between 21-member negotiating teams on each side were engaged in trivialities: What expressions they should be using at the talks and what should or should not be placed on the agenda.
The Taliban want their movement to be referred to as a legitimate jihad, and they refuse to refer to the Afghan government as an Islamic republic until Kabul accedes to their demand.
To call the Taliban's bloody raids on Afghan security forces a jihad would be suicidal for Kabul and generally unacceptable.
Yet the Taliban do have grassroots support, which may however be dwindling due to their belated killing sprees that have become particularly brutal under Mullah Hibatullah's leadership.
The Trump administration has not taken a clear stance on these raids although the US envoy for peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had said that this degree of violence from the Taliban was not acceptable.
Protracted waiting with no clear end in sight may also raise a more sinister question: Do they (Taliban and the Afghan government) want peace?
If the US does not want peace, which is the understanding most Afghans seem to have, then those who are attached to them may also share the same attitude.
Moreover, the Taliban militarism and its suspected al-Qaeda links suggest that they most likely aim for a military takeover of Kabul and peace is not likely to deliver that prize.
The Kabul government has also missed opportunities for peace in recent months and a continuation of status quo is an option as it would likely prolong the American military presence.
Ghani's internal bickering with Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation chairman Dr Abdullah Abdullah has also led to indecision. Rumour has it that Dr Abdullah prioritises peace, whereas Ghani wants peace on his own terms.
The latter is also less than happy with the way the Taliban became the first party to sign an agreement with the Americans.
The Doha talks have yet to enter its proper agenda. It is uncertain but likely that the Taliban will take issue with the current constitution of Afghanistan with reference particularly to equality clauses for women and implementation of syariah. They also suggest that an ulama council be formed to take charge of implementing syariah.
Such demands will be met with resistance as prominent women leaders and civil society are critical of the Taliban's view on women. So, protracted negotiations are likely to continue, and may be more of the same with the waiting game. What remains to be said is that they all owe it to their conscience, country and people to drop petty delaying tactics and work sincerely for a peaceful Afghanistan.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali is founding chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Wednesday 09 December 2020