As the United States is poised to sign a peace agreement with the Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan, there are signs that a lasting settlement between the insurgents and Afghan society might prove more of a challenge than an accord between Washington and the Taliban.
Factions within the Afghan government and Washington differ over whether they are willing to accept a reduction in violence or expect a complete cease-fire in the wake of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
This step is considered important for jumpstarting negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other parties for sharing power and agreeing on their country’s future political system. The talks are understood to begin in Oslo within 10 days of the agreement between Washington and the Taliban.
"[U.S. President Donald] Trump reiterated the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence by the Taliban that would facilitate meaningful negotiations on Afghanistan's future," a White House statement said after the U.S. president met with his Afghan counterpart, President Ashraf Ghani, on January 22.
Ghani, who met with the U.S. president in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, however, emphasized that the Taliban must commit to ending violence. The Taliban controls large swathes of rural Afghanistan, and violence is widely seen as their key source of leverage given their limited domestic appeal and political support.
“The billion-dollar question is: Are the Taliban ready to see the end of violence?” he asked during an interview at the World Economic Forum. “If they are, Afghan society is willing to reintegrate them. But if they see peace as a Trojan horse to overthrow the government and the society, then the government would mobilize.”
Ghani says the Taliban are not ready to engage in a political process to end the war in his country. “The good news is that the ranking Taliban fighters are sick of fighting,” he said. “The people sitting in Doha [the Taliban’s political office] are getting their fourth or fifth wives and are enjoying themselves. They have become investors.”
But Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban office in Doha, rejected Ghani’s claim. “People scared by the achievements of our political office are making such allegations."
Recent Taliban statements and leadership interviews, however, speak to their frustration with Washington’s push for reducing violence and being pushed to join peace talks with Kabul and Afghan factions.
“Signs are indicating that the American side wants to waste even more time on the definition of the term ‘reduction of the violence’ while understanding full well that this is the demand of the small number of people in the shaky administration of Kabul who are using it as a means for derailing peace,” read a January 22 article titled Peace Talks And More Excuses on the insurgent’s Voice of Jihad website.
In a January 20 commentary called Powerless Shall Always Remain Shareless, the Taliban called the Afghan government feeble, saying it has “consistently been sidelined in every major decision regarding Afghanistan.” The article said the government remains “marginalized” in the latest developments about the peace process.
“They have continually remained loyal to the interests of the invaders and toed the official line of their masters over the past two decades and therefore, they shall continue to remain an insignificant party when it comes to major issues,” the Taliban statement said while alluding to its longstanding position to refuse to negotiate peace with Kabul.
In a January 6 interview, the Taliban’s deputy leader and top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said the war in Afghanistan will end when the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. “If there’s no U.S., we [will] for sure reach an agreement between ourselves, because they are Afghans and we are Afghans,” he told the Public Broadcasting Service, an American public television, about future peace talks among Afghans. Baradar, however, didn’t elaborate on the peace process after the U.S. withdrawal.
In Kabul, political elites are divided over whether to push for a complete cease-fire as a precondition for resuming talks with the Taliban or accept the Taliban’s offer of a significant decrease in violence for 10 days, which officials say entails ceasing attacks on highways and Afghan cities.
Ghani’s top election rival Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai lead the Afghan political elites favoring accepting the insurgents’ current offer to begin talks.
But former spy chief Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s vice-presidential running mate, is not upbeat about the peace returning to his country after a U.S.-Taliban deal.
“The talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar might end the war between the two, but it will not end the Taliban’s war against the Afghan nation,” he told a think tank audience in Kabul on January 23. “No foreigner can negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghan people, and no foreigner can impose its deal on us.”
A recent survey of 5,000 Afghans by the Institute of War and Peace Studies, an Afghan think tank, found that nearly 68 percent want a republican form of government while only 12 percent support an Islamic Emirate, the formal name of the Taliban. Some 46 percent of respondents support the withdrawal of international forces. The organization said most of its survey’s respondents live in villages across Afghanistan.