Talks between the Afghan government and the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement finally appear to be on the horizon after the two sides announced a brief cease-fire during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha this week.
But it is unclear whether they can overcome the immediate problems of reconciling differences over prisoner releases, extending the cease-fire, and resentment over relentless violence since the Taliban signed an initial peace agreement with the United States in February.
The agreement outlined a roadmap in which American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees. The Taliban and supporters of the current Afghan political system, formally called the Islamic Republic, are expected to decide on a shared future political system before the U.S. withdrawal is complete next year.
The Afghan government and Taliban have reportedly reached an agreement over the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners as U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad toured the region in an apparent bid to revive the stalled Afghan peace process. The Taliban have freed some 800 Afghan soldiers in return for the release of 4,000 Taliban fighters by the government.
But there is no sign that the Taliban are ready to relinquish their push to recreate the Islamic Emirate, the formal name of their 1990s regime that attracted Afghan opposition and international condemnation for harsh implementation of what the movement called Islamic Shari’a law.
The Afghan government, civil society, and leaders and factions supporting the republican system also want to preserve the gains of the past two decades, which saw a new pluralistic Afghan political system take hold despite Taliban violence, corruption, declining international aid, and continued interference by Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, said the group is now ready to move ahead with the peace process, offering a timeline that could get the ball rolling on talks. “The Islamic Emirate is ready to release all remaining prisoners of the other side before the eve of Eid al-Adha provided they release our prisoners as per our list already delivered to them,” he wrote on July 23. “Intra-Afghan negotiations will begin immediately after Eid.”
On July 28 Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesman, announced a three-day cease-fire during Eid al-Adha, which begins on July 31. He wrote on Twitter that “in order for our people to spend the three days of Eid in confidence and happiness, all fighters are instructed not to carry out any operations during this period.”
Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, however, was vague about exactly what his movement will offer Kabul and what they will demand, indicating instead that the movement still sees itself as absolved of any commitments or responsibilities.
“Domestic parties should immediately remove all obstacles obstructing intra-Afghan dialogue and give priority to the greater interests of our homeland over division of smaller interests,” he said in a July 28 statement issued on the Taliban website, “so that the Afghans may jointly eliminate all internal and potential causes of war and conflict, restore peace to our homeland and reach an understanding among themselves over future Islamic government.”
The recent announcements have stirred mixed feelings among Afghans as they hope for peace but question the Taliban’s ability to keep their promises.
Under Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, the Afghan government has emphasized the preservation of republican values and the achievements of the past 19 years in the fields of democracy, human rights, and women’s rights — repeatedly stating that these issues are all part of the government’s “red line” of non-negotiable values.
"If the Taliban continue fighting, the Afghan peace process will face serious challenges," Ghani said earlier this month. "Unfortunately, the current level of violence is higher compared to last year." The Afghan leader said that some 3,560 Afghan soldiers have been killed and 6,781 wounded in Taliban attacks since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal in February.
On July 28, Ghani urged the Taliban to agree to a "permanent and comprehensive cease-fire" during impending peace talks.
But Mullah Fazel, a former top Taliban military commander and current senior negotiator, indicated in March that re-establishing the Islamic Emirate remains a top priority. “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a [Islamic law],” he told Taliban fighters and supporters in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, which has served as a Taliban sanctuary after they were routed from Afghanistan in late 2001.
Fazel maintains that the new Islamic Emirate will be more inclusive. “Unlike in the past, not all [officials] will come from among the ulema or the Taliban,” he said. “The Taliban or the Islamic Emirate will never become part of the Kabul government, but we can grant them [some individuals] a ministry or some other post.”
Khairullah Shinwari, a political activist who has met and talked with Taliban leaders recently, says the Taliban are willing to cooperate with the Afghan government. “They will accept any political system agreed upon in the negotiations between the Afghans as long as it does not conflict with the religious and traditional values of Afghans,” he said.
The question, however, is whether any middle ground between the two sides can be found. Ali Yavar Adeli, an expert at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, says an agreement can only come from a sustained discourse built upon the foundation of achievements and progress. “We need to continue these talks because our values have not been easily achieved,” he said.
“The key issue is to preserve the achievements that go back to the fundamental rights of people, and to continue to bring about peace, a basic desire for all Afghan people,” said Aminullah Habibi, another Kabul-based analyst. Those fundamental rights include women's rights, a large topic of concern for those who don't wish to re-imagine life under Taliban rule.
Azra Asghari, a Germany-based women’s rights activist, doubts the Taliban have changed their views concerning women. “I don’t think the Taliban are paying attention to social activities and women's rights,” she said. “The Taliban determine women’s rights based on outdated traditions, which is not acceptable in this new age.”
In the runup to the long-awaited talks, many questions remain unanswered. On one side of the negotiating table, supporters of the Islamic Republic appear ready to reach an agreed settlement and participate in talks if it means being one step closer to peace in the country. But whether the Taliban are prepared to end their violent campaign and compromise on their political ideals remains to be seen.