Feb 08, 2019
CAPS Deputy Director conducts interview with The National

Afghans worried about being left out of US Taliban peace talks
The Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the government risks undermining talks in Afghan eyes.
As discussions ahead of formal peace negotiations between the US government and Taliban inch forward, Afghan political and civil society leaders have raised concerns about the lack of Afghan representation in the process.

After another round of talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived in the Afghan capital on Monday amid widespread reports in Afghan media that he was there to discuss a proposed interim government that would include the Taliban.

Mr Khalilzad, however, dismissed the reports. Addressing local media, Mr Khalilzad said negotiations were now focused on a comprehensive ceasefire plan.

“We are working with the Afghan government, with international partners, to find implementing mechanisms to reach these goals,” he said.

The Afghan High Peace Council, an independent body appointed by the government to negotiate peace, also dismissed rumours of an interim government, telling The National that it was “not on our agenda”.

But spokesman Sayed Ihsan Taheri did say that greater Afghan involvement in the peace process was necessary. “Our constitutional authority should be considered and respected. Our people want intra-Afghan direct talks to kick off between the Afghan government and Taliban.”

Despite Mr Khalilzad’s repeated assurances, Afghan politicians and civil society members are concerned about a transitional political leadership with the Taliban, largely because many Afghans fear the influence of Pakistan and other regional powers in such a setup.

The idea of an interim government was raised by Pakistan’s intelligence agency three years ago, according to Idrees Stanikzai, a political activist and a former candidate for the parliament from Kabul. “The US wants to hand over Afghanistan to Pakistan in the name of peace,” he said.

Rumours of an interim government have raised fears that presidential elections scheduled for July could be postponed. “It is imperative that fair elections be held to ensure that the Afghan interest is represented,” Mr Stanikzai said.

Sources close to Mr Khalilzad told The National that the US envoy was critical of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s approach and policies surrounding the peace talks, and that Taliban leaders including Mullah Zaeef have expressed to Mr Khalilzad their reluctance to enter talks with the Afghan president. “Khalilzad quite openly said that future political system is based on the Afghan will. It is not something the US wants to [control], it is a matter for Afghans, so I think [if they did indeed propose an interim government] there might be a rational explanation to it,” said Hekmat Azamy, deputy director at Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, a Kabul based think tank. Mr Azamy said he had a detailed discussion with Mr Khalilzad on Tuesday about the proposed framework that is currently being discussed in Afghan media.

Further elaborating on what a potential interim government or a “peace set-up” might look like, Mr Azamy said: “President Ghani’s term in closing. However, if the elections are postponed his government will remain in power in an acting capacity, albeit unconstitutional.”

He speculated that the Taliban might be more open to talking with such an “acting body or group” that represents the Afghan people. “It would then perhaps be more plausible for the Taliban to be willing to negotiate with the current government. Since in such a situation, all sides would be technically illegitimate and the word ‘government’ – which seems to be a reason for the Taliban to reject them – could be removed from the talks.”

If the possibility of the Taliban negotiating with Afghans directly is assured – rather than only with the Americans – an interim government would be worth considering, he said. “This could allow for a truly intra-Afghan dialogue.”

Also of concern to Afghans are reports that Mr Khalilzad had discussed with the Taliban a timeline for withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. A premature withdrawal of troops could leave the country’s already faltering security in an even more vulnerable state.

The persistent refusal of the Taliban to talk with the Afghan government, which it views as an American puppet, risks undermining the credibility of the talks in the eyes of many Afghans. “I think the fact that Afghanistan as the only country not present in the Afghan peace talks is concerning,” said Javid Faisal, former spokesperson to Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, an office that was set up in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the US between the two leading presidential candidates during elections in 2014. “Intra-Afghan dialogue [is] the only solution and concrete path forward for lasting peace in the country.”

He added: “As it is going now, there are no guarantees that the process will serve the goal [of Afghan people] even if the Afghan government and people agree to an interim government. There are no guarantees for success and no obligations for Taliban and Pakistan to respect a peace deal for long.”

Concerns about Pakistan involvement in the peace process are genuine, Mr Azamy said. “The influence that Pakistan enjoys over the Taliban is undeniable. I believe these meetings could never have been possible without Pakistan’s pressure, and now the Pakistani army is even claiming that out loud,” he said, referring to a recent statement by a Pakistan military spokesperson taking credit for facilitating talks between the US and the Taliban. Afghans remain apprehensive about Pakistan’s role in the negotiations, fearing that the neighbouring country may try to exert influence to determine the outcome of talks.

“As an Afghan, it also worries me that if a deal is made with Pakistan looking over the Taliban, it will not be in our national interest,” Mr Azamy said.

Mr Khalilzad has rejected accusations about Afghans not being involved in the process. “There is a false narrative that Afghans are not included. That is not true. The Afghan voice is there,” he said.

Mr Stanikzai, the activist, is not convinced. If the Taliban do not wish to deal with the Afghan government, it should reach out directly to the Afghan people, he argued.

“Why not call a traditional Loya Jirga [a council of tribal elders] and sit as one nation and decide the country’s future, rather than sitting with the Americans in Doha?” he asked.