A Breakthrough At Last In Afghan Peace Talks?

Glance at the headlines and you’ll likely feel downbeat about Afghan peace prospects:

July 2: Scores Of Children Injured By Kabul Car Bomb.

July 7: At Least Fourteen Dead In Ghanzi Attack.

Violence in the troubled Middle Eastern state is utterly incessant, it seems. But amid the carnage, there is new cause for hope. Taliban chiefs have, for the first time, sat down with members of Afghanistan’s government in an effort to map out peace. A small step forward undoubtedly, but in a war that’s wrought havoc on a generation of Afghans, any progress feels momentous.   

Talks between the Taliban and the Americans – who, after 18 years of war, still have 14,000 troops deployed – have trundled along for months. The US wants a four-point peace package guaranteed by the militant group: a mutually agreed American exit, an assurance Afghanistan will never again harbour international terrorists, a ceasefire, and an agreement to deal directly with the Afghan authorities.

On the first two there is consensus, while the third is proving difficult to thrash out. But it’s the final point – the call for intra-Afghan talks – that has, until now, been the principle stumbling block. The Taliban hold the Kabul government in utter contempt, discounting them as a puppet administration unworthy of diplomatic contact. But that position seems to be softening. On July 7, militant chiefs met with representatives of the Kabul administration – albeit in a strictly “personal capacity”, a point stressed by Taliban leaders.

The landmark Qatar-based talks were emotionally charged, attendees said afterwards. Numerous members of the Afghan representation had lost loved ones to militant bombings – and several on the Taliban side had spent years in government jails. Delegates were able to navigate their fraught history however, and settled on a “roadmap for peace”. In the short term, both parties agreed to reduce violence by withholding attacks on religious centres, schools, hospitals, educational establishments, bazaars, water dams, and workplaces.

“[We are] committed to respecting and protecting the dignity of people, their life and property and to minimise the civilian casualties to zero,” read a joint statement released after the talks adjourned.

But as promising as it is, the declaration is not binding – and with an ever mounting death toll, it’s clear both sides need to urgently reform their actions. The Taliban’s July 2nd bombing shredded the outside of a school, killing at least one child and seriously injuring 50 others. The attack in Ghanzi five days later claimed 14 lives. On July 9th, a government airstrike killed 11 civilians in the country’s northern province of Baghlan, including an infant.     

With the Taliban’s unwavering refusal to order a ceasefire, the killing is unlikely to abate anytime soon. The militants have approached the talks from a position of power – stronger than they have been since the 2001 US invasion, the group now holds sway over half the country. Rejecting calls for a truce strengthens their hand further, Taliban chiefs say, as they can threaten heightened unrest – particularly in the run up to September’s general election – if concessions aren’t granted. Remobilising disbanded fighters is a daunting prospect for the group’s leaders, too. 

But diplomatic hope abounds in other areas. The Taliban government of the ‘90s was notorious for its intolerance and misogyny, banning female access to education and employment. Gender equality has become a mainstay of modern Afghan politics however, with the shift to democracy ushering in a new era of female emancipation. To the surprise of many, the Taliban have signalled their acceptance of the new norms. Women’s rights would be protected, militant negotiators acceded, but within an ‘Islamic framework’. While some worry this caveat could allow for future regression, most on the government side are hopeful.

“No peace process is sustainable without women,” said former MP Fawzia Kofi, a leading equality campaigner who participated in the talks. “[I’m] glad to see common understanding on difficult issues. The conference itself was a success in pursuing peace agenda,” she added.       

On the topic of legal reform, there is less flexibility. The Taliban rejects Afghanistan’s current criminal code, claiming it borrows too much from the West, preferring instead the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. And there are more worries still over what the militants aren’t voicing objection to. Securing a US military exit is the Taliban’s ultimate goal – if a few empty promises and public goodwill hastens this, that’s a price they’re willing to pay, experts believe. 

“The Taliban are currently engaged in a public relations campaign to demonstrate they are not as secretive as the media has portrayed them,” says Ahmad Mohibi of Rise to Peace, a counter-terror organisation. “Sitting openly with Muslims, non-Muslims, and female journalists, as well as dining with them, paints a convincing picture. All of this could be another tactic to achieve their goals, such as foreign troop withdrawal and establishment of an Islamic Emirate”.

America seems keen to take the Taliban at it’s word however, heralding the intra-Afghan talks as a “big success”. And while some are despondent at the glacial pace of negotiations, it’s reasonable to assume that more formal mediation between the warring parties will follow. But the issues that divide Kabul and its militant adversaries are rooted deep in their shared past, predating US involvement. Unpicking a generation of violent discord is a gargantuan task. For the sake of Afghanistan’s war-weary innocent, let’s hope they’re up to the job.