Intra Afghan Talks: Many a Slip between the cup and lips

Afghan expert argues that the intra-Afghan negotiations process is going to be thorny, tardy and marked by hardliners on both sides; with the classical establishment in Kabul viewing Taliban as terrorists and using regional warlords as a bulwark against them and the Taliban seeing no place in a future setup for these warlords.

Intra Afghan Talks

Taliban, on the other hand, see no real place in any future set up for the likes of Saleh, Qanooni, Mohaqiq, Dostum and Sayyaf. This guarantees a perpetuation of hostilities as it becomes evident that President Ghani and his ilk now look up to regional warlords as a bulwark against Taliban and as a guarantee for regional peace in favour of Kabul. So why not empower and reactivate them to deny the Taliban any possible foothold? A sure recipe for continued conflict in the shadows of geopolitical turf wars.

In all probability, it took a “serious” phone call on September 1 by the US National Security Advisor (NSA) Robert O’Brien to pave the way for the long-awaited Doha talks. Within hours, 200 of the 320 prisoners – thus far dubbed as heinous crime offenders – were released and a day later, the rest were also set free.

A group of about six or seven most contentious prisoners – allegedly involved in the killing of Australian and French nationals – however, would be transferred to Doha where they would be kept under supervision.

Read more: Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan

“These six prisoners are on the blacklist of three countries; they are involved in the deliberate killing of their citizens. Their families have launched a campaign—-if these prisoners are released, there is a possibility that our relations will decline—because of this, the release was suspended,” said Amrullah Saleh, the Afghan first Vice-President.

The release of remaining prisoners was writing on the wall; firstly because the Taliban had dug in their heels on this issue and refused to come to the negotiations until the release of all the 5,000 prisoners. Secondly, the “victory declaration by Trump” hinges on the launch of the intra-Afghan negotiations (IAN), a politically high-stakes issue for the President. The process, he had hoped, would start much before the November presidential election day so he could claim credit for at least starting the peace process.

His Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had earlier threatened to cut off $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan to soften Ghani and his associates’ resistance to talks with Taliban. That had worked. So did O’Brien’s phone chat with Ghani, who of late has been embracing almost everyone he thinks may help him drag, if not stall, the talks as he pleases.

Critics said the nomination process lacked across the board consultations, and people were included in the list without their consent. They also point out the presence of several warlords on the list

Desperate for hanging on to power and driven by fears of a premature exit if the IAN succeed with a dominant role – which the militia expect – Ghani has been making contentious moves – one after the other – to what he believes would serve as his safety or firewall in the years to come.

After the tardy conduct over the Taliban detainees, for which he also convened the Loya Jirga in July to absolve himself from responsibility, Ghani also annoyed many over the inclusion of several controversial persons in the Peace Council for the Doha negotiations.

The 46-member High Council for National Reconciliation handpicked by Ghani for the intra-Afghan negotiations (IAN) includes ten members in leadership positions, nine women, nine high-ranking government officials, and 19 “political figures” and former mujahideen leaders – or warlords.

Read more: US-Taliban talks: Some good news?

Prominent among the former mujahideen leaders are Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former VP Mohammad Karim Khalili, Mohammad Mohaqiq, former vice president Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, former foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, former Herat governor and minister of energy and water Mohammad Ismail Khan, former Balkh governor and CEO of Jamiat-e-Islami, Atta Mohammad Noor, head of Maaz-e-Milli party Sayed Hamid Gailani, Zabihullah Mujaddedi.

Personalities from Ghani’s current regime include Amrullah Saleh, the former NDS chief and currently first Vice President, Mohammad Sarwar Danesh, second Vice President, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, currently acting Foreign Minister, Hamdullah Mohib, National Security Adviser, Mir Rahman Rahmani, Wolesi Jirga Speaker and presidential adviser Almas Zahid.

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Women members of the council include civil society activist Safia Sediqqi, former MPs Fawzia Koofi, Najiba Ayubi and Mari Akrami, civil society activist Zia Gul Rezaee, Alia Yulmaz, former higher education minister Farida Mohmand, chairperson of medical council of Afghanistan Nasrin Oryakhil and civil society activist Zarqa Yaftali.

Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, publicly rejected Ghani’s nominees, saying this was the authority of the head of the council according to the political agreement in May. Abdullah drew on the May agreement to underline that only the head of the High Council of National Reconciliation has the authority to “form the council in consultation with the president, sides and political leaders, speakers of the houses of parliament, the civil society and elites of the country.”

Read more: Pak-Afghan ties: A true hope for betterment or yet another false alarm?

Abdullah insisted while citing provisions of the political deal with Ghani that there was no need for a presidential decree on the formation of the council because the selection of members falls under the authority of the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.

The Presidential Decree on the council drew heavy criticism by all and sundry. Critics said the nomination process lacked across the board consultations, and people were included in the list without their consent. They also point out the presence of several warlords on the list.

Even former Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the inclusion of his name. In a statement said he will continue his efforts for peace, but rejected his membership in the council, saying he would serve in no government institution. Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called the membership of mujahideen and political leaders in the council symbolic and ineffective.

We call on the President of Afghanistan to assess all cases of corruption and deal with the thieves of the national treasures in line with the law. At this stage, it is not important that we deal with the legal and judicial cases politically or make them ethnic

On the other hand, both Karzai and Abdullah insist that the process of selecting members of the High Council for National Reconciliation should follow consultations with religious leaders, political leaders, elders, civil society organizations and broad-spectrum Afghan representation including women and youth, to ensure inclusivity.

Critics pointed out that Afghan youth representation was missing in the council, particularly those who have grown up in the post-2001 years and most of whom are staunchly averse to warlords, especially former mujahideen leaders.

Why Warlords?

While a number of Afghans – question the presence of many mujahideen and jihadi leaders on the talks’ council, Ghani appears to have something else up his sleeves; one after the other, he has surrounded himself with former warlords such as Sayyaf, Hekmatyar, Ata Noor, Ismail Khan, Qanooni, and Dostum, who was last year even denied landing in Kabul despite being the vice president.

His price for supporting the government-backed peace efforts was the prestigious title of “Marshal”, a designation awarded to only three Afghans in the country’s history. Earlier, Dostum had also won freedom for five close aides, all accused of gang-raping a political opponent, ignoring demands from international rights groups for holding the marshal and his aides accountable for massive abuses.

Read more: US officials question their state’s Af-Pak narrative

Even otherwise, Ghani seems to be heavily leaning on regional warlords he thinks will be key to his survival in case talks dragged on stalled. One of the cases in point is Nizamuddin Qaisari, an abusive militia commander and former district police chief in northern Faryab Province, accused of using his hundreds of armed men on the government payroll to extort locals.

Following several attempts, he was eventually caught, loaded onto a plane and brought to Kabul in December last year. President Ashraf Ghani had declared his arrest, along with two other strongmen from other parts of the country, a major victory. “I tied the hands of three strongmen and brought them to Kabul,” Mr Ghani said at the time.

But within months, to the surprise of many Qaisari emerged in public as a free man, appearing at public rallies and conducting TV interviews in Faryab and Mazar-e-Sharif, always surrounded by the gun-toting guards whom the government had declared outlaw militiamen. Ghani was also seen as being “soft or expedient” in the case of Keramuddin Keram, former chairman of Afghanistan’s soccer federation, who had eluded capture by Afghan Special Operations officers after taking shelter in his home town Panjshir. He had been accused of raping several female players of the Afghan football team, prompting FIFA to place a lifetime ban on him too.

This guarantees a perpetuation of hostilities as it becomes evident that President Ghani and his ilk now look up to regional warlords as a bulwark against Taliban and as a guarantee for regional peace in favour of Kabul

In the run-up to an abortive attempt to arrest him earlier this month, Ghani had called on the people of Panjshir, to “expel” Mr Keram from the province and “enforce the rule of law.” Critics saw this appeal as a demonstration of the government’s inability to enforce the law.

“We call on the President of Afghanistan to assess all cases of corruption and deal with the thieves of the national treasures in line with the law. At this stage, it is not important that we deal with the legal and judicial cases politically or make them ethnic,” said Faraidoon Khawzon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah.

“I think the government has no control on its territory politically or militarily …this indicates the weakness of the security institutions,” said Rohullah Sakhizad, a legal expert in Kabul, according to the New York Times. The paper described Mr Qaisari’s saga as symptomatic of “all the elements of what has undermined nearly two decades of American efforts to establish a new system in Afghanistan — abuses, militia turf wars, and politicized justice,” opined the New York Times (December 16, 2019).

Read more: Afghan transit trade: The plight of traders

Lastly, the IAN process is going to be thorny, tardy and marked by hardliners on both sides; the classical establishment in Kabul still treats and views Taliban as terrorists – a view that draws empathy and support from India as well as the US establishment.

Taliban, on the other hand, see no real place in any future set up for the likes of Saleh, Qanooni, Mohaqiq, Dostum and Sayyaf. This guarantees a perpetuation of hostilities as it becomes evident that President Ghani and his ilk now look up to regional warlords as a bulwark against Taliban and as a guarantee for regional peace in favour of Kabul. So why not empower and reactivate them to deny the Taliban any possible foothold? A sure recipe for continued conflict in the shadows of geopolitical turf wars.

Imtiaz Gul is a Security Analyst and Executive Director for the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies and author of two books, The Unholy Nexus: Pak-Afghan Relations under the Taliban and The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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