The Grand Assembly and release of Taliban prisoners

Both sides must engage in a long discussion over governance systems and Taliban’s role in a new dispensation

Release of prisoners

On August 9, the Council of Afghan Elders (Loya Jirga) approved the release of the 400 remaining Taliban prisoners in custody. The Afghan President had expressed his unwillingness to set free these “dangerous” inmates who were allegedly linked to serious crimes. He convened the meeting of the traditional council to decide the prisoners’ fate.

More than 3,000 Afghan elders from across the country attended the three-day session. The council “authorised” the President to release the detainees. A presidential decree has now been issued. The prisoner release will be completed within days, paving the way for the long delayed intra-Afghan dialogue.

Read more: The Afghan peace process: Hoping against hope!

Refusal to release the prisoners was a political gimmick to attract attention

Having released about 5,000 Taliban prisoners earlier, there was no good reason to hold on to the last 400. Refusal to release them was a political gimmick to attract attention and delay the commencement of negotiations. President Ghani also wanted to convey to the US that the release of these 400 could result in violent attacks on US forces. This didn’t work.

Because the Taliban have scrupulously avoided targeting US forces or their installations since the February accord. Ghani also wanted to demonstrate the pluralistic complexion of his government by seeking advice from a wide spectrum of Afghan society elders. Eventually, US pressure forced the President to order the prisoners’ release. The Loya Jirga was used as an instrument to remove the last hurdle in starting negotiations with the Taliban.

The most difficult part would be mainstreaming the group and whether a new, transitional government could be installed through the Loya Jirga

This is a welcome development. The Taliban have reacted by declaring their readiness to join talks as planned. Afghanistan is on the cusp of a defining moment in its long quest for peace.

Complex negotiations lie ahead. No one would expect a quick end to the talks that will address issues like amendment to the Constitution, ceasefire, mainstreaming of Taliban, governance systems, fate of Taliban fighters, etc. On many of these issues there are widely divergent views of the parties. Reconciliation and consensus building is not easy.

As preparations would now start for the first session of talks in Doha, attention will be focused on the agenda for the long debates that are to follow. One obstacle the Taliban and some members of the government would have to confront is the reluctance or complete unwillingness of some diehard anti-Taliban leaders to reach a compromise at the expense of their political clout and privileges.

Read more: Kabul “Loya Jirga” will decide Taliban prisoners’ fate: Afghanistan

Beneficiaries of the current system

Some team members and some who are wire pullers would try to sabotage the talks to blame the Taliban. These are beneficiaries of the current system. They exploit opportunities to ensure a long stalemate and the continuance of a status quo that has been rewarding for them.

Such lobbies would endeavour to create hurdles in the way of any constitutional amendment. They realise amendment is not a favourable subject with the masses who are desperately longing for a return to peace and normalcy.

There would be an attempt to force a ceasefire on the Taliban. Those supporting the prolongation of the status quo know well the Taliban would not easily agree to a ceasefire. In order to deepen the schism such opponents of a peace deal would highlight the critical importance of a ceasefire. Taliban would be careful not to agree to a cessation of attacks because they believe a suspension of fighting could demotivate their volunteers.

The US will have to play its role carefully and regard the many perils that could result in case of breakdown of talks

Discussions and cooperation

Both sides must engage in a long discussion over governance systems and the Taliban’s role in a new dispensation. The most difficult part would be mainstreaming the group and whether a new, transitional government could be installed through the Loya Jirga.

That is a point where Ghani’s government would have to confront the harsh choice: Would the regime hang on to power after the failure of talks and risk resumption of violence or would it keep the country’s supreme interest uppermost and agree to an interim arrangement dominated by the Taliban?

One thing is clear. Any failure of talks could spread widespread discontent and lead to a breakdown of law and order. That is a frightening prospect.

Read more: Afghan Endgame: Time running out for Kabul government

The US will have to play its role carefully and regard the many perils that could result in case of breakdown of talks. It will have to monitor the powerful group that opposes reconciliation and make them ineffective. Failure of talks is not an option for the US.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at The Express Tribune and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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