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Afghan Peace Talks Are Fraught With Stumbling Blocks


Muhammad Naeem a member of the Taliban office in Qatar.

It has taken years of diplomatic efforts to bring the hard-line Taliban movement to the negotiating table with Afghanistan's government.

But the peace talks, reported to begin in early March, face a tall order to reach a mutually acceptable resolution.

Afghan officials are optimistic over Pakistan's powerful military's backing for talks and its intention to force Afghan Taliban leaders and foot soldiers from their safe havens in Pakistan if they resist talking with Kabul.

Over the past decade, Kabul has consistently blamed Islamabad for being the principal foreign backer of the Taliban and has asked for its support in direct talks.

Now, despite the likely start of formal peace negotiations, Afghanistan's unity government will have to haggle hard with the Taliban to reach a lasting settlement.

Ceasefire and Immunity

The first major test of the peace process will be for both sides to halt hostilities. Currently, most of the Taliban's propaganda is focused on calls to inflict damage on Afghan forces, who in turn pride themselves on eliminating the Taliban. Both sides often exaggerate the number of people they kill.

The resolve of the two sides will be tested in early spring, when traditional fighting season begins in Afghanistan. A series of Taliban attacks in November raised fears of an all-out war as Western forces prepared to end their combat operations. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are at an all-time high.

Even if the Afghan Taliban, formally known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, agrees to a ceasefire, Taliban splinter groups and other militant factions can undermine such an agreement by launching attacks.

While the Taliban maintain a contact office in the Qatari capital of Doha, providing immunity to Taliban negotiators and ensuring their connection with Pakistan-based leaders will pose a challenge.

In addition, leading Taliban leaders are still under sanctions, and some have been declared international terrorists. Providing them with immunity and ensuring their constant contact with Taliban negotiators is an issue that needs to be worked out in the early stages of the talks.

Foreign Military Presence

For more than 10 years, the Taliban resisted talking to Kabul because they wanted instead to hold direct negotiations with the United States, which they said was the occupying power and ultimately in charge.

Since U.S. President Barack Obama made reconciliation among Afghans a pillar of his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy in 2009, Washington has fulfilled most of the Taliban's demands.

The United States freed five Taliban commanders incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay since 2001 in exchange for the lone U.S. soldier they held. The United States also backed reforming the UN sanctions regime against the Taliban and even facilitated establishing a Taliban contact office in Qatar in 2013.

In return, the Taliban made some pronouncements distancing themselves from Al-Qaeda and indicated they are open to a negotiated settlement that would assure Afghans their government is "for all of them and this country belongs to all of them."

At the same time, the Taliban opposed Kabul's Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington. The Taliban swiftly reacted to new U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter's February 21 statement about slowing the withdrawal of his country's forces from Afghanistan.

A February 23 comment by the Taliban declared that such plans are aimed at "burning our beloved country in the fire for a few more years." The statement went on to say that "the presence of foreign forces is the biggest obstacle to peace" in Afghanistan.

Power Sharing And Sharia

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is reportedly "willing to allow certain vetted Taliban representatives to participate in amending the constitution and even taking up positions in the unity government."

But winning the backing of the entire Afghan political spectrum for such power-sharing will be a challenge. Powerful warlords, most of whom occupy senior government posts, have opposed power-sharing with the Taliban in the past and still view them as the enemy.

Even bigger disagreements are likely to emerge over the shape of the future constitution and the role of the Islamic Shari'a law. The Taliban pride themselves on having implemented Shari'a in the 1990s and still insist on imposing it as the law of the land.

For the Taliban, Shari'a means the enforcement of specific, non-negotiable rules collectively called the Hudood. This strict criminal code ordains punishments such as the amputations of limbs for theft, stoning to death for adultery and lashes for alcohol consumption.

But the drafters of the current Afghan Constitution seem to agree that Shari'a is only an ethos behind a complicated tradition and is subject to different interpretations. The Afghan supreme law affirms Islam as the state religion and calls for all laws to be consistent with Islamic doctrines. However, it guarantees adherence to international human rights instruments.

If Kabul's negotiations with the Taliban move forward successfully, Afghanistan will have to brace itself for complicated constitutional and legal debates.

For years Afghan rights campaigners in general and women in particular have been warning that their rights and liberties should not be sacrificed in order to appease an extremist minority.

Blood Feuds

Reconciliation with the Taliban will require a grassroots effort to address the hundreds or even thousands of blood feuds that exist across Afghanistan.

Over the past 13 years, the Taliban have developed a narrative of being victimized by foreign occupation and brutalized by their local allies. Insurgents often point to leaders such as General Abdul Raziq, the security chief in southern Kandahar Province, as particularly gruesome figures.

On the other hand, some Afghan communities and leading political and tribal families have accused the Taliban of engaging in systematic massacres and assassinations.

The Taliban are accused of the 2011 assassinations of former Afghan peace council head and President Burhanuddin Rabbani and former President Hamid Karzai's younger half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

The Taliban have also engaged in the systemic elimination of predominantly Pashtun military commanders, politicians, tribal leaders and pro-government clerics. According to the UN, the Taliban and other insurgents are responsible for more than 70 percent of all civilian casualties.

Geopolitics

China is being credited with bringing Kabul and the Taliban together at the negotiating table by leaning on key regional ally Pakistan to push the Taliban toward peace.

Beijing is also seen as being behind a major diplomatic push to encourage support among Afghanistan's near and far neighbors for a settlement among Afghans.

Similar efforts in the past have failed after being torpedoed by covert actions and some of the country's neighbors pushed their Afghan allies for an outright military victory.

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