Two weeks after the United States signed a landmark agreement with Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban movement, the peace process stipulated by the agreement is already under severe strain because of disagreements over multiple issues mentioned in the agreement and outside its scope.
The Taliban and the Islamic Republic, the Afghan government and factions supporting the current political system, have already missed the March 10 deadline for beginning direct talks aimed at concluding a lasting cease-fire and working out a power-sharing agreement in a future political system during the next four months.
The immediate sticking issue is the release of some 6,000 predominantly Taliban prisoners.
The agreement commits the United States “to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides.” But the Afghan government, which actually holds the prisoners, is not party to the agreement and has pushed for the issue to be included in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
The Taliban, however, have already rejected a March 10 decree by President Ashraf Ghani that stipulated a phased conditional release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
The Taliban refusal has apparently prompted the Afghan government to walk back on releasing 1,500 detainees to begin the process. "We have received the lists of the [Taliban] prisoners to be released. We are checking and verifying the lists; this will take time," Afghan National Security Council spokesman Jawed Faisal said on March 14. More crucially, he added that Afghan authorities “want guarantees that they will not return to fighting.”
The controversy over the prisoner release comes amid a larger political crisis over last September’s presidential election. A week after Ghani was sworn in for a second term, his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, still insists that he, too, is the president. The two men continue to work from adjacent palaces amid a tense standoff. Their rivalry has so far failed to seep deep into the Afghan government organizations, which are broadly controlled by Ghani.
But nearly a week after U.S. Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said he is trying to help the two to come “to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government,” there are no visible signs of a patch up despite Khalilzad’s saying that “both leaders made clear that they are open to negotiations to end the political crisis and that peace and reconciliation is the priority.”
In what amounted to a direct challenge to Ghani’s authority, opposition politicians allied with Abdullah talked of forming a reconciliation council to negotiate with the Taliban. “This council will be inclusive and will include representatives of the Arg [presidential palace] and politicians,” Mohammad Mohaqiq, the leader of the Hazara Hizbi Wahdat-e Islami party, told Radio Free Afghanistan on March 15.
But presidential adviser Waheed Omar disagreed. “Everyone believes the government represents the people of Afghanistan. It should represent politicians and all levels of Afghans,” he noted.
The uncertainty over the beginning of intra-Afghan peace talks amid a political crisis is further clouded by the coronavirus pandemic. Afghan authorities say the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus infection, is low. But the country has conducted only 250 tests, of which 21 were positive as of March 16.
On March 15, the Afghan refugee minister told lawmakers that COVID-19 has infected many and has killed at least 10 Afghan refugees in neighboring Iran. Afghans officials are worried that the return of tens of thousands of people from Iran, where the infection rates are some of the highest in the world, is likely to cause an epidemic in their country.
“If we don’t start acting, I am afraid there might come a day where we can’t even collect the dead," warned Abdul Qayoum Rahimi, the governor of western Herat Province, which shares a long border with Iran. “We are in a situation where the politicians and even some parts of the government don’t feel how grave the danger is.”
In Kabul, Ghani acknowledged the challenge. “Our vulnerability comes from our openness. We have open borders with Iran, one of the major centers -- and the flow cannot be stopped,” he said during a March 15 video conference with leaders from across South Asia.
But the Taliban appear eager to use the pandemic to their advantage. In a March 15 statement, the Taliban warned that the coronavirus pandemic poses a serious threat to the tens of thousands of inmates at Afghan prisons. “God forbid if the coronavirus epidemic hits the prisons, it will prompt a major catastrophe,” the statement said.
Barnett Rubin, an academic and former State Department adviser, has urged the warring sides in Afghanistan to unite in ending hostilities in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“All forces should observe a cease-fire in place and confine themselves to quarters, or even disband and return home, since concentrations of people pose risks of contagion,” he wrote. “The resumption of offensive actions after the end of the pre-February 29 reduction in violence poses a risk of renewed escalation that threatens both the peace process and public health.”
But the Taliban seem to be pressing ahead with an aggressive military strategy. At least 11 Afghan security forces and some 20 Taliban fighters were killed during a clash in the western province of Ghor late on March 15, according to Mohammad Kabiri, the official in charge of Shahrak district in Ghor. Earlier in the day, a suspected Taliban infiltrator reportedly killed at least seven Afghan soldiers in the southern province of Kandahar.
It is not yet clear whether the Taliban will refrain from launching a new spring offensive, which typically follows the Afghan new year that corresponds with the spring equinox around March 21. Past Taliban announcements of spring offensives have typically been followed by a considerable increase in violence.