AFTER six months of intransigence and delays, the Taliban and Afghan leaders sat down together on September 12th in Doha, in Qatar, for the launch of “Intra-Afghan talks”. The government, the militants, opposition politicians and representatives of civil society have to try to hammer out an agreement on how to run the country.
The get-together is the cornerstone of attempts to end the war between the Taliban and the internationally backed government. An agreement in February between America and the Taliban covered the withdrawal of American troops, and mainly tackled those two foes’ individual disagreements. America agreed to a military pull-out by May 2021 if the Taliban gave guarantees not to harbour terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda—the original reason for the American-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
The Afghan government was not part of the troop-withdrawal agreement, and peace after the Americans quit needs much more solid underpinnings. Afghanistan’s nightmare began with a coup in 1978, long before the Americans arrived. Grievance and bloodshed have mounted over four decades; the two delegations in Qatar themselves show just how long the conflict has dragged on. Some government negotiators are the children of commanders who fought the same Taliban negotiators in the 1990s; the current insurgency is only the latest chapter in their enmity. Millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Foreign powers have meddled for their own advantage. A negotiated settlement must somehow deal with this history.
“The current conflict has no winner through war and military means,” said Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation. “But there will be no loser if this crisis is resolved politically and peacefully through submission to the will of the people.”
Both sides were on their best behaviour as the ceremony began in an opulent hotel ballroom. Opponents greeted each other like old friends. Some Afghan delegates remarked on the positive mood and even General Austin Miller, the American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, exchanged pleasantries with his adversaries. For optimists, the negotiating teams also contain hints of a less fractured country. Both Masoom Stanekzai, leading the government team, and Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, deputy chief negotiator for the Taliban, hail from the same tribe and province.
The first sessions are expected to start gently, breaking the ice and setting the agenda. A ceasefire is then the Afghan government’s main priority. The war is killing or wounding scores of civilians each week. Hopes of a reduction in violence after America’s deal with the Taliban were largely dashed over the summer. A study by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group, found that both sides have become more restrained in proclaiming offensives and that more attacks are happening without claims of responsibility. The killing, however, has been largely undiminished. Violence is the Taliban’s most important bargaining chip and they will be reluctant to give it up. They know that force of arms is what has won them a seat at the negotiating table.
Talks will then at some point have to move on to the thorniest issues: how the country should be governed; how power should be allocated; and what rights should be enshrined in a constitution. These issues may take months, if not years, to resolve. The Taliban have so far given little detail of what they want, leading some Afghans to question whether they are serious about negotiations. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the militants’ deputy leader, did little to flesh out their aspirations. He told the opening ceremony his side wanted “a free, independent, united and developed country”. It would have “an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood”.
When pressed on women’s rights, the militants have previously said only that they will be protected under Islam. Such vagueness has not reassured many Afghan women. The Taliban were after all claiming to protect them in the 1990s when they forbade them from work and education. Former Taliban officials now admit their repressive regime made mistakes. As talks unfold, they will have to spell out just how far they have shifted from their extreme fundamentalism and give details of their present aspirations. That may expose painful divisions between moderate factions and doctrinaire stalwarts who want a restoration of their emirate. Nor, for its part, has the Afghan government given many details of its own hopes. Ashraf Ghani, the president, has previously said he wants “a sovereign, democratic, and united republic”.
Talks are taking place behind closed doors and no foreign officials are allowed inside. America, as the Afghan government’s main backer, still looms large, but its influence is waning and changing. The summer’s delays in getting talks going, combined with intelligence assessments that the Taliban are still chummy with al-Qaeda, might have given President Donald Trump excuses for slowing his troop withdrawal, had he wanted any. He did not. Troop numbers fell from 13,000 in February, to 8,600 in June. They will now fall again, to around 4,500 before the American presidential election in November, allowing Mr Trump to tell voters he is keeping his promise to end the war.
Mr Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is himself no fan of the military campaign. So whatever the election outcome, America’s longest war seems to be entering its closing phase. Mr Pompeo told the delegates that Washington would in future use its muscle in other ways. “As you make your decisions, you should keep in mind that your choices and conduct will affect both the size and scope of future US assistance,” he said.
The task of forging a settlement is formidable, but the two sides must now realise America is intent on leaving. That imposes a deadline of sorts. They have a limited window to try to ensure that the void left by America does mean history repeats itself, and that the long foreign intervention becomes just another interlude in Afghanistan’s interminable civil war.