Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad speaks at the inauguration of the Ghazi School in Kabul. U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham, Afghan Minister of Education Abdul Rahim Wardak and visitng former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmai Khalilzad officially inaugurated the newly rebuilt Ghazi High School in West Kabul October 23, 2011. Former alumni of the school include both Ambassador Khalilzad and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The school was destroyed during 30 years of fighting in Afghanistan, and was refurbished by the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Department of State)

So far, 2019 has provided substantial food for thought regarding peace-related talks on Afghanistan. Developments of this period have sparked further discussion on the prospects of a successful peace “process,” and different prevailing debates predict various outcomes. Assessments have ranged from those bearing high optimism to those with severe cynicism. At this juncture, it might be worthwhile to take stock of where the ongoing “process” stands by considering the numerous paths the Taliban, the United States, and regional countries are taking in the current venture aimed at a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. 

Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Conflict inAfghanistan

Over the past few weeks, the text of a detailed draft agreement whose development is attributed to the U.S.-based RAND Corporation has drawn significant attention from various quarters. The framework of the agreement in the circulated draft outlines provisions and responsibilities of a potential transitional administration, troop withdrawal, and a complete overhaul of the structure of Afghanistan’s constitution, political system and governance, including the frameworks of the security forces and intelligence institutions, while also identifying the terms of formulating and ratifying a new constitution.

Though not officially publicly endorsed by the United States or the Taliban as the working draft of a peace agreement, the scope of the draft, and its source—an organization with which the incumbent U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has had a lengthy affiliation—has generated curiosity within and outside Afghanistan, and some have viewed it as the working draft of a potential peace agreement. According to media reports citing sources privy to the deliberations within the Taliban, the draft is a framework currently being used as reference during the negotiations, and that the group is seeking some changes. 

Leadership Changes in the Taliban Ranks

Baradar’s appointment is unlikely to have any bearing on the contents of the negotiation. Instead, in his new role he will probably be an accessory to the process, given how he enjoys a degree of popularity in the group’s political and military ranks.

After days of refusing to meet Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the delegation from the Taliban’s political “office” in Doha finally met him in late January (not before Pakistan carried out some raids and arrests including that of a key Taliban leader, Hafez Mohibullah). On January 24th, even as the meeting was underway in Doha, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Afghan Taliban who was released in October 2018 after eight years in a prison in Pakistan, was appointed head of the group’s “political office” based in Doha, Qatar, as well as “Deputy of the Leader in Political Affairs.” Other changes to the leadership of at least 13 “departments” in the group’s structure were also carried out, and more can be expected in the coming days. It is conceivable that all these changes were carried out in preparation for the group’s potential political future in Afghanistan.

Baradar’s appointment is unlikely to have any bearing on the contents of the negotiation. Instead, in his new role he will probably be an accessoryto the process, given how he enjoys a degree of popularity in the group’s political and military ranks. That said, speculations are rife inside Afghanistan that Baradar’s appointment might be an indication of him being poised to play a bigger role in any potential interim administration in the future that includes the Taliban. Given his background, it is not difficult to imagine that in a scenario where a new political order that includes the group becomes a reality, he might be presented as the moderate face of the Taliban.

Conciliatory Remarks?

Post the Doha meeting, various representatives of the group made various statements, some of which were considered conciliatory, while some others caused controversy. Whether the Taliban reinforces its rhetoric with tangible supporting actions has yet to be seen. Since July 2018, Taliban leaders have held meetings in different regional countries in pursuit of gaining international legitimacy, and have also met Afghan political elite. However, the stances the group has taken on core issues over the years do not seem to have changed yet, especially with regard to women’s rights. Everything in their rhetoric that has sounded conciliatory has been made with caveats of “Islamic principles” and “Afghan customs” as the yardstick to measure acceptability and degrees, and the group’s interpretations of these two parameters are ambiguous at the moment. Clarity on these aspects would be necessary for the people of Afghanistan, especially women, to make informed decisions regarding the process and contents of a negotiated settlement and their futures.

A Tactical Turn in the Neighborhood

Meanwhile, predictably, regional countries whose apprehensions have not yet been adequately addressed seem to be taking tactical approaches to preparing for potential post-settlement scenarios. For instance, Russia’s inroads in Afghanistan’s domestic politics were on full display in early February. On February 5th and 6th, over 30 prominent Afghan politicians—none from the incumbent government, but including two women and a 10-member delegation of the Taliban’s Doha “office”—met in Moscow to exchange views regarding a potential peace deal for Afghanistan. Not long after the Moscow meeting, Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, indicated in a lengthy interview that Moscow would be open to lifting sanctions placed on Taliban leaders if all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also in favor of such an action. Evidently, Russia recognizes that notwithstanding the tension in the Moscow-Washington bilateral relationship, there may be an intersection of interests that may offer it an opportunity and that, for the time being, the United States does not seem entirely averse to Russian “assistance.” Similar lines of thinking in other regional and extra-regional countries and groupings are not implausible, although they have yet to become apparent.

At present, one gets a sense that the United States may be on its way to get the “honorable exit” it seeks in exchange for power and international legitimacy to the Taliban.

At present, one gets a sense that the United States may be on its way to get the “honorable exit” it seeks in exchange for power and international legitimacy to the Taliban. On the surface, it seems that the structure of the Afghan political system is being reimagined by a variety of actors. A wide spectrum of the Afghan elite seems to have been taken into confidence in this enterprise. Meanwhile, alliance-making endeavors towards candidacies for the scheduled July 2019 presidential election have laid bare the divisions and prevailing calculations in Afghanistan’s political environment. How all the different threads play out and intersect in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen. Ultimately, precedents set in the process of achieving a comprehensive settlement will determine how Afghanistan and the region experience their futures.

Views expressed are theauthor’s own and do not reflect those of the organizations to which she isaffiliated.

Image 1: Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Anadolu Agency via Getty

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