Chicken-or-Egg Conundrum

By Syeda Mamoona Rubab

Syeda Mamoona Rubab explains why there has been no headway in the Afghan peace process

Nearly six weeks after US President Donald Trump upended peace negotiations with Taliban, there seems to be a consensus that the peace process needs to be restarted, but the new precondition of ceasefire could make the resumption difficult.

A greater emphasis on ceasefire could be seen as Afghan government unveiled its seven-point peace plan towards the end of the month. Ahead of this, there was a flurry of diplomatic activities aimed at breaking the logjam in the process since President Trump declared the parleys dead in the aftermath of death of a US soldier in a Taliban attack in Kabul.

National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, in a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday, called on the Taliban to “stop killing Afghans.” He said that previously Afghan government did not have any preconditions, but now it wants to first have a ceasefire. The condition is not just to test the sincerity of the insurgents to the dialogue, but also the control of the group holding the negotiations over its fighters on the ground.

The seven-point peace strategy titled ‘Steps Towards Stability in Afghanistan’ unequivocally mentions the condition of ceasefire. “Before the negotiations begin, the Afghan people and government demand the Taliban to enter into a mutual ceasefire a) to prove that they have maintained unity of their command and b) to provide space for successful talks. Detailed plans for a ceasefire as a pre-condition to the talks as well as the negotiations process are developed separately,” the document stated as it outlined its plan for taking the process forward including negotiations with various stakeholders – US and NATO, Taliban, Pakistan, neighbouring countries, and international organizations.

Analysts believe that the condition is a result of the spike in violence seen during the earlier part of year when the insurgent group held nine rounds of talks with US Special Envoy for Reconciliation Amb Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha. A UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report in September estimated that the on-going conflict had resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,800 civilians during the first half of 2019. High level of violence was also witnessed during the lead up to the elections in Afghanistan on September 28 which resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.

The Afghan government has inferred from the increase in violence that Taliban ranks have fractured and as Mohib put it “they don’t have control of the war and some key Taliban commanders” have deserted them to join other violent groups including Daesh. He asserted: “Before entering the peace talks, the Taliban must show how much control they have.”

The Taliban do not agree to this pre-condition and instead insist on starting from where their talks with US had broken down in September, when they were said to be close to inking the deal. In their view they first need to have a deal with US on withdrawal of the troops, after which they will commence intra-Afghan dialogue and the somewhere after the talks begin there could be a ceasefire.

Spokesman for Taliban Political Office in Doha Suhail Shaheen said: “We are committed only to the points within the Treaty that our negotiating team has finalized with the American side.”

Position of the United States, the other key stakeholder in the process, is somewhat closer to that of the Afghan government as it too is emphasizing on reduction in violence as a pre-requisite for resumption of the peace process although the Americans are not putting it as categorically as is being done by Kabul.

Khalilzad, in his interactions with Pakistani interlocutors in Islamabad this week, emphasised on “the importance of reducing violence” as he discussed with them the “current status of the Afghan peace process,” according to the US embassy. The top American negotiator earlier this month held an unannounced meeting with Taliban representatives in Islamabad, attended four nation talks in Moscow and lately travelled to Kabul for exchange of views with Afghan leaders.

A similar view was expressed by the representatives from US, China, Russia, and Pakistan, at the four nation talks in Moscow on Afghan reconciliation, in their joint communique. The statement read: “In order to create an environment conducive for negotiations, urged all sides to immediately reduce violence. Stated their expectations that all sides will observe a ceasefire for the duration of intra-Afghan negotiations to enable participants to reach agreement on a political roadmap for Afghanistan’s future.”

Therefore, a new debate has begun around the efforts for reconciliation whether a ceasefire must come before political dialogue – sort of the chicken and the egg situation. Research on peace processes shows that going to political process without first having a ceasefire often leads to negative consequences for the outcome of the dialogue. This is because hostilities and the accompanying rights abuses would continuously keep the political process under the threat of disruption.

The negotiators during their dialogue need to focus on the political agenda and the buy-in from key stakeholders instead of constantly worrying about keeping the process alive. Even a semblance of normalcy contributes immensely to the peace process.

But, getting Taliban to agree to merits of a ceasefire before the start of an intra-Afghan dialogue would not be an easy task. They insurgent group believes that the strength of their negotiating position depends on the battlefield situation. That’s why they prefer putting ceasefire subsequent to start of talks.

The other factor that one needs to keep an eye upon is Afghanistan’s presidential election result now expected on November 14. Although, it’s very much clear to all concerned who is set to win, but it remains to be seen how this process is concluded.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]

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