Intra-Afghan Talks (1): Rules of procedure agreed, but still no agenda as talks resume

Ali Yawar Adili

 

 Intra-Afghan Talks: Rules of procedure agreed, but still no agenda as talks resume

The second round of intra-Afghan negotiations – as they are officially called – is scheduled to begin in two days time, on 5 January 2021, in Doha. The first round ended on 14 December after three months of talks. During that time, the teams managed only to agree on the rules of procedure for the talks themselves and exchange preliminary lists of issues they wanted on the agenda. As the Islamic Republic and Taleban negotiations teams finish their three-week break, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili gives an overview of the talks. He assesses what was achieved and what difficulties were faced in the first round, gives an idea how the parties envisage the talks moving forward, details the rules of procedure and analyses what each side has proposed should be discussed during this second round. A translation of the rules of procedure can be found on our resources page.

Members of the Taliban delegation leave their seats at the end of the session during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha. Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP.

The two teams will start the second round of talks after what proved to be a difficult first round. It took 82 days for the sides to agree on the rules of procedure; after that, they spent another 12 days exchanging long, preliminary lists of issues they want to include on the agenda for future talks. The two lists reflect profoundly different (but well-known) priorities: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) [1] is pushing for a ceasefire first, while the Taleban see this as a final outcome of the negotiations. Their priority is discussing the establishment of an ‘Islamic’ government and its institutions. The three-week break was proposed as an opportunity for the negotiators to consult with their respective leaderships.

An unexpected unilateral call by the Afghan government for the next round of talks to be held in Afghanistan raised concerns that this could delay the start of round two. However, the government quickly abandoned the idea, and President Ashraf Ghani agreed to go back to Doha for the second round of negotiations.

Agreeing the rules of procedure was held up by a stalemate over two issues – the framework for the intra-Afghan negotiations and the source of Islamic jurisprudence that would be used as the basis for resolving potential disagreements during the talks. Mediation was needed by the host, Qatar. This facilitation was remarkable because it sets a precedent for similar interventions in the future. When the talks resume, agreeing on the sequencing, and therefore prioritisation, of agenda items will likely be equally complicated and time-consuming.

This report looks at the rules of procedure in detail, the proposed agenda items and the current dynamics of the peace talks. It is structured as follows:

  1. How the rules of procedure were reached
  2. The rules of procedure
  3. Two points of contention that delayed the first round of talks
  4. A break for consultations
  5. Proposed agenda items exchanged
  6. A provocative call to move the talks inside Afghanistan
  7. Conclusion
  1.  How the rules of procedure were reached 

On 2 December 2020, 82 days after the intra-Afghan talks started, the two parties announced they had finalised the rules of procedure for future talks and would now move to discuss the agenda itself (see the government team’s announcement here and the Taleban’s statement here). The agreement was quickly welcomed by the outgoing United States government which had consistently pressed for progress. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said it demonstrated that the two sides were “serious, able to overcome differences, and ready to deal with difficult issues.”

Not everything had gone smoothly in the last days before the rules of procedure were finalised. On 28 November, the Taleban had unilaterally announced that the rules of procedure “in 21 articles” had been finalised two weeks earlier (15 November). They added that the document (published by VOA in Dari and Pashto, on 9 December 2020) had been “interpreted” in the presence of “the host/facilitator,” Qatar, on 17 November. According to the Taleban, a copy had been handed to the host country “after it was approved by both negotiating teams.” The IRoA team immediately contradicted the Taleban, saying there was an agreement “in principle” on the 21 articles of the rules of procedure, but the preamble required “further discussion and clarification.” The Taleban responded in a tweet on the same day claiming that “the entire procedure including the preface was completed and finalized by the agreement of both negotiating sides.” The preamble is crucial as it refers to the basis of the talks, which has repercussions and implications for the status of the Taleban, as will become clear in the next section. This was not just a minor tussle over the timing of the announcement, therefore, but a bid by the Taleban to win legitimacy.

A member of the IRoA team told AAN on 8 December that there had indeed been a trilateral meeting including the Special Envoy of the Foreign Minister of Qatar for Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict, Mutlaq al-Qahtani (five people from each side) on 15 November. In this meeting, the two Afghan parties agreed the rules of procedure. According to this source, al-Qahtani wanted to seal the agreement with prayers. However, the IRoA chief negotiator Masum Stanekzai suggested (and the parties agreed) to hold the official prayer ceremony the following day in a joint plenary session. They also decided not to release the agreement to the media ahead of the ceremony. The next morning Stanekzai called a meeting of his team and expressed his dismay because al-Qahtani had advised the Emir of Qatar of the agreement immediately after leaving the meeting. After receiving a congratulatory call from the Emir of Qatar, the source said, President Ghani, who had yet to be told about the agreement, summoned Stanekzai to Kabul for an explanation.

IRoA team member Muhammad Amin Ahmadi said in a Facebook post (which he has now removed, but which has been widely shared on social media, see for example here) that the rules of procedure had included the Doha agreement as the first of four “principles” in the preamble. He said this was “more appealing” to the Taleban [2], but the government leadership felt the preamble lacked “sufficient clarity.” While the IRoA team was working to address the government’s concerns, he said, the Taleban, had unilaterally rushed ahead to announce the agreement, contrary to “mutual commitments” and before the procedures were finalised in a joint plenary session.

Ahmadi explained that their team had taken the necessary steps to manage reactions, prevent further misunderstandings, accelerate efforts to remove ambiguities from the preamble (the four principles) and send an explanatory letter to the Taleban team to communicate its interpretation of those principles. He said they sent a similar letter to the United Nations and the Peace Support Group, comprising Qatar, Germany, Norway, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, which was created at the outset of the negotiations (see media report here.) According to Ahmadi, these countries and the UN confirmed the Islamic Republic’s interpretation in their responses. They reiterated their support for the democratic system, human rights and the Afghan people’s rights as the “end state” of the peace talks. Ahmadi said the UN and Peace Support Group had recorded the IRoA’s clarifications concerning the four principles. He said there was consensus in government and among other political leaders that the leadership’s concerns had been addressed.

Ahmadi explained that the government finally agreed to the preamble because the phrase “intra-Afghan negotiations which began on 12 September 2020” presumes that one of the two parties is the government of the Islamic Republic. He added that the government launched the talks together with the Taleban and the international community on 12 September reinforcing its position. He also suggested that, even though the other three principles do not explicitly establish the government as one of the parties, its inclusion does highlight that the Doha agreement is not the source of the government’s commitment to the talks.

2. The rules of procedure 

The rules of procedure, a three-page document composed of a preamble and 21 articles, establishes the US-Taleban agreement (also called the Doha agreement full text here) and three other principles as the basis for the intra-Afghan talks. The inclusion of the agreement was a key demand of the Taleban, as it gives the Taleban diplomatic weight as a direct partner of the US government. There is no reference in the preamble to the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” issued in February 2020 (see full text here). The three other principles, reflecting demands of the Afghan government, are vaguely formulated. They are the “demands of the Afghan people” for durable peace, the commitment of “the two Afghan negotiating sides” to durable peace and “the repeated calls by the UN” for an enduring peace.

Another point of contention, the initial Taleban demand to make (Sunni) Hanafi jurisprudence the explicit and exclusive authority for resolving disagreements, was amended. A member of the negotiation team told AAN on 8 December that they had added the phrase “with protection of the principles and rights of the Shia and without discrimination against them” to the provision that Hanafi law should be the basis for resolving disputes. The parties finally agreed that a joint committee would resolve disagreements, presumably by consulting more diverse jurisprudential references. In his Facebook post, negotiation team member Ahmadi said the Taleban had given up emphasising this point after gaining “relative advantage on the issue of the Doha agreement” as the principal basis for the talks.

Here we scrutinise the rules of procedure as published by VoA. We follow the five themes outlined by Afghan journalist Ayub Arvin (see Facebook post) and add a further two:

  • Terminology used to refer to the negotiating parties:

The document avoids directly naming the two parties, using various synonymous terms instead to refer to them: “du taraf” (two parties), “du janeb” (two sides), “taraf-e mozakera” (negotiating party), “tarafain” (the parties), “du tim-e mozakera konanda” (two negotiation teams) and “hay’at” (delegation). The terms “mezban” (host) and “tas’hil konanda” (facilitator) are also used without referring to national identity.

There is no mention of the venue of negotiations. Several members of the Peace Support Group (Norway, Germany, Uzbekistan and Indonesia) have offered to host. This issue is kept open.

  • Bases of negotiations:

Arvin concludes that because the three ‘other principles’ are not explicitly formulated, the Doha agreement is recognised as the de facto basis for the negotiations. This is a victory for the Taleban as it elevates their status to that of a US partner. It also bolsters the Taleban’s demand for the release of all their prisoners still in government custody. The Doha agreement stipulates to the release of “up to” 5,000 Taleban prisoners by “the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations” and “all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months,” following the start of intra-Afghan talks. Disagreements over the release of the 5000 prisoners delayed the start of talks, which were due to begin on 10 March, for months. They only finally started on 12 September. The number of remaining Taleban prisoners in government custody is unknown. On 6 December, US Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson, speaking to reporters, indicated that the Taleban expected “another 7,000 Taliban prisoners [to be released] … under the terms [of the Doha agreement] … by roughly mid-December” (see media report here).

The Doha agreement also commits to the withdrawal of all US troops, and those of its allies, from the country within 14 months, ie by May 2021 (read AAN analysis here). The US carried out an initial troop withdrawal, as per the agreement by mid-June 2020, as well as an additional withdrawal, unrelated to the talks, announced by President Trump just ahead of the US elections on 18 November. It is due to be complete before Trump leaves office and will leave 2,500 US troops on Afghan soil by 15 January 2021 (down from about 13,000 a year previously). The agreement committed both sides not to attack the other. US airstrikes on the Taleban largely ended, boosting their relative strength vis-à-vis the Afghan National Security Forces. The Taleban’s war on the ANSF and Afghan civilians they see allied to the government only intensified over the course of 2020.

Taleban officials told the BBC on 14 December that “if US forces do not withdraw from Afghanistan, we will resume our attacks against them.” It is a somewhat empty threat, given the difficulties of finding US soldiers to target. However, the further intensification of violence would likely rather hit Afghan civilians and members of the ANSF. Already in 2020, the worsening of insurgent violence even as peace talks got going has already led to many Afghans losing hope that the talks in Doha will end the war in Afghanistan.

  • Management and protocol:

Seven articles pertain to protocol. Article 1 sets out that the first session of the day should start with the recitation of verses from the Holy Quran. Article 2 stipulates that all sessions should start and end with prayers. Article 5 calls for mutual respect between the parties and economy of words during the negotiations. Article 6 emphasises patience while listening to the speakers. Article 14 allows for a break should a team need one for consultations. Article 15 says the daily meetings should break for the five prayers.

Two articles regulate the recording of the proceedings. Article 10 stipulates that each side should introduce three note takers. Article 11 says that, at the end of each session, both sides should compare notes, consolidate decisions, and the committees assigned by the two sides should approve the final text.

Three articles relate to the management of negotiators. Article 12 stipulates that the head of each delegation is responsible for managing their respective team. Article 16 defines the role of the host country and that of the facilitator. It specifies that the facilitator will not be present in the negotiation sessions (which indicates that the facilitator could be other than or as well as the host). Article 17 rules that, once an issue is agreed, it will not be re-opened.

  • Information sharing:

Four articles regulate information sharing. Article 13 stipulates that, at the end of each session, the two sides should agree on what information can be shared with the media to avoid misunderstandings. It also stipulates that the two sides should avoid “irresponsible statements.” Article 18 stresses the confidentiality of documents related to the negotiations, saying the two sides should avoid disclosing “any information that harms the negotiations.” Article 19 obliges the two sides to reject “rumours.” Article 20 sets out that the media should not be allowed inside the negotiation room.

  • Dispute resolution:

Three articles pertain to the resolution of disagreements. Article 7 stipulates that disputes should be referred to a joint committee that would provide “alternatives or other appropriate solutions,” or those issues could be deferred for later discussion. Article 8 sets out that the joint committee would decide on any disagreements related to “sharia texts.” The number of committee members has not been specified. Article 9 ambiguously calls for a “balance” between the “pace of negotiations … [and] the need for further discussions … [on] important issues.”

  • Agenda and success of the negotiations:

Article 3 stipulates that nothing “against the holy religion of Islam and the country’s supreme interests” can be included in the agenda. Article 4 sets out that the negotiations should be held in good faith and aim at “success.”

  • Official languages

Article 21 stipulates that all documents relating to the negotiations should be written in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two official languages, and that documents prepared in both languages will be equally valid. The article does not specify how translations should be done, nor does it specify the working language of the talks.

3. Two points of contention delay the first round of talks

This section will examine the two points of contention that held up the first round of the intra-Afghan negotiations to document additional details.

On the day the talks were officially launched, 12 September 2020, the spokesperson for the IRoA team Nader Nadery, tweeted: “The two negotiation teams met after the opening ceremony to get to know each other better. Each team introduced a contact group who will be discussing rules & procedures as well as [the] agenda of the first round of talks.” Another member of the team Muhammad Nateqi told AAN on the same day that the government contact group was composed of Muhammad Masum Stanekzai, Nader Nadery, Zarar Ahmad Muqbel, Fawzia Kufi, Enayatullah Balegh, Muhammad Nateqi and Khaled Nur, while Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, Abbas Stanekzai, Nurullah Nuri, Shahabuddin Delawar and Qasim Turkman were members of the Taleban contact group (for biographies, see here).

Only a few days later, the media reported that two significant issues were already hampering agreeing the rules of procedure: the basis or framework for the intra-Afghan negotiations and Islamic jurisprudence sources for resolving potential disagreements during the talks. For example, on 22 September, the BBC reported that the Taleban had “called for this set of talks to be subsumed within the US-Taliban deal signed in February.”

Tolonews reported on 25 September that the government had proposed four alternatives:

  1. The terms of the US-Taleban agreement could be accepted as underlying the talks if the terms of the joint declarations between the Afghan government and the US and the Afghan government and NATO were also taken as applicable;
  2. Neither the US-Taleban agreement nor the joint declarations would be recognised as having any authority and the negotiations would move forward based on the decisions of the Consultative Loya Jirga held in Kabul on 7 August;
  3. Talks would be “based on the national interest of Afghanistan;”
  4. The Quran and Hadith would be the main authority for the talks, replacing all others.

In his Facebook post cited above, Ahmadi claimed that the IRoA team’s strategy was to prevent the Taleban from imposing their narrative and undermining the government’s legitimacy. He said that to avoid a deadlock, they did not see it as compulsory for the Taleban to recognise the government’s legitimacy in advance but sought a balance in the more than ten recommendations they had offered to the opposite side.

The Taleban had insisted that any potential disputes during the talks should be exclusively “resolved within the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, one of four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence,” according to the BBC report. Such a provision would contradict the current Afghan constitution and constitute a severe setback for the Shia community which had faced a similar battle with conservative Sunni actors during the 2004 constitutional process. (Articles 130 and 131 of the Afghan constitutionrecognise both Hanafi and Shia jurisprudence as reference points if there are no provisions in the constitution and other laws.)

There were strong reactions by the predominantly Shia, Hazara community to this idea. Hazaras were concerned that the acceptance of Hanafi jurisprudence would be a point of departure for the marginalisation and future exclusion of Shia Afghans based on religious beliefs. For example, former Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqeq, speaking at an event commemorating the ninth anniversary of former president Borhanuddin Rabbani’s assassination by the Taleban on 18 September, said: “Recognition of identities is something that Afghanistan has now achieved. We have accepted one another, ethnic groups, languages, religions, all [of us] accepted one another in Afghanistan’s constitution. We should not restart the count (na bayad hesab ra az sar begirem)” (media report here). A statement signed by several Hazara diaspora groups (publishedon 30 September on the Hazara International website) said: “A peace settlement must ensure full and equal participation of Hazaras in post-peace government structure and political system.” It also called for “the religious rights of Hazaras [to be] recognized as [they are] in the current Constitution of Afghanistan, and that their opportunities as equal citizens of Afghanistan are not limited because of their sectarian beliefs.” [3]

On 26 September, a member of the Taleban negotiation team, Khairullah Khairkhwa, confirmed their Hanafi-only proposal to an online channel close to the Taleban, but claimed: “This issue will not cause any problem for the Shias.” He said the government’s negotiation team had demanded that “issues related to personal status should be mentioned in [the rules of procedure].” The Taleban had accepted this, he said, and had acknowledged that the Shia communities had their own “customs and rituals, but these issues should be raised when we discuss the constitution. For the rules of procedure of the negotiations, this issue does not create any problems.” He criticised the Afghan negotiation team for leaking this controversy. He also confirmed disagreements over adopting the US-Taleban agreement as the basis for the negotiations (media report here).

4. A Break for consultations 

On 12 December, the IRoA and the Taleban negotiation teams announced simultaneously, through similar tweets, that the two parties had exchanged “initial lists of agenda items” and had “conducted preliminary discussions” on the points. Both said that because the agenda items needed further consultation, they had agreed to a three-week break starting on 14 December (see the IRoA negotiation team’s announcement here and the Taleban’s here). [4]

It is unclear whether this was a planned break (after initial discussions on agenda points). It is also unclear which party proposed it. [5] On 16 December, High Council For National Reconciliation (HCNR) chair Abdullah Abdullah said both sides had agreed to the break (see official note here). The IRoA team arrived in Kabul on 15 December, briefed Abdullah (see this HCNR report) the following day and President Ghani on 19 December. According to the Palace’s report, Ghani highlighted “the importance of considering the views of all segments of society in the peace process … and instructed… [the IRoA team]… to consult with different segments of the public before the start of the second round of talks to make sure [their views] are appropriately represented in the negotiations.”

Following up on this instruction, the State Ministry for Peace organised a consultative meeting between three female members of the negotiation team and several women’s rights activists on 20 December. Team members also consulted their respective communities. For example, on 19 December, three Hazara team members met Vice-President Sarwar Danesh and Hazara cabinet members, national assembly members and other political figures. On 20 December, an Uzbek member of the negotiation team, Abdul Matin Bek, hosted influential figures from the Turk-tabaran (Turkic) community, with another Uzbek team member, Batur Dostum, also attending.

For their part, a delegation of Taleban officials based in Doha led by deputy Taleban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar travelled to Islamabad for consultations with senior Pakistani officials and their own leadership (see media report here). Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press release on 16 December that this visit had been organised “after consultation with the Government of IRoA and as a result of a state visit to Afghanistan by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, H.E. Imran Khan.” The statement called it “part of the ongoing endeavours to strengthen the peace and national reconciliation process.”

The Taleban delegation met Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on 18 December. Pakistan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Muhammad Sadeq, tweeted on the same day that Khan had “expressed concern over the high level of violence and called on all sides for reduction in violence leading to ceasefire.” Earlier on 16 December, Reuters quoted “Taliban political sources” saying: “Our field commanders started carrying out more attacks and it created problems for our office in Qatar; therefore our delegation would like to see them and discuss it with them. … [We] would not request attacks stop entirely but explain the problems and suggest they slow.”

However, the Taleban delegation trip to Pakistan soon after became more contentious. A series of video clips showing the Taleban delegation in Pakistan appeared on social media. A ten-minute video shared on social media, on 22 December, shows Mullah Baradar speaking to a crowd in Karachi, including injured fighters being treated there. In a rare admittance (and contrary to countless claims by successive Pakistani governments), he confirmed that “all our leadership and elders are also based and operate from here, which is [evidence of] the support and value that Pakistan affords us.” He also praised the “sacrifices of you mujahedin” that had made it possible for “the world’s most arrogant power to sit [at the table] with us.” Baradar also told the crowd that he had spoken on the phone with US President Donald Trump for an unprecedented 35 minutes. He assured the gathering that the Taleban negotiation team would preserve “the ideals of our martyrs, our injured, our ordinary people and our nation” and not bargain away the “hardships you have endured.” Baradar said that they had shared all aspects of the talks in Doha with the “leadership.”

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a statement on 25 December saying: “The overt presence and activities of Afghan insurgent elements and their leaders in Pakistani territory clearly violate Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and continue to cause crisis and instability in the region, posing a serious challenge to achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan.” The statement called on “the Pakistani Government not to allow its territory to be used by insurgents and elements who insist on continuing the war and bloodshed,” and added, “the Government of Afghanistan considers the closure of insurgent and terrorist sanctuaries and the cessation of their activities vital for the peaceful resolution of the Afghan crisis and ensuring regional peace and stability. Afghanistan calls once again for sincere cooperation and the genuine fight against terrorism and common threats to continue.”

5. Proposed agenda items exchanged

Three days after the IRoA and Taleban negotiation teams announced on 12 December that they had exchanged preliminary lists of their proposed agenda items, Tolonews published a list of these items on 15 December, which, it said, had been exchanged “verbally.” The proposed lists included 24 items from the Taleban and 28 items from the IRoA (see the report in English here and in Dari here). A member of the IRoA team confirmed to ANN on 17 December that the lists were genuine.

The security section of the IRoA proposed agenda includes 15 items concerning challenges facing the government which it wants addressed at the outset of the next round of talks. According to the US, in addition to the Doha agreement, the Taleban had verbally committed to a substantial reduction in violence, something denied by the Taleban (see AAN analysis here). Afghanistan, however, has witnessed unprecedented violence in recent months. On 17 December, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Deborah Lyons, warned the UN Security Council that “violence has skyrocketed in the country. In the last few months, improvised explosive devices caused over 60 per cent more civilian casualties and child casualties rose 25 per cent over previous periods.” Targeted assassinations have also intensified (see media report here). US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmai Khalilzad, tweeted on 24 December that “These targeted killings and assassinations must stop. They threaten the peace process. The Afghan people demand peace. A ceasefire and political settlement remain urgent.”

In light of these threats, it is not surprising that the IRoA team has placed a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and a mechanism for its monitoring and implementation at the top of its agenda. The Taleban, on the other hand, put a permanent ceasefire as the last item on their agenda. According to the IRoA’s list, the ceasefire would need to ensure security on “all roads, including highways.” There have been increasing reports (see herehere and here) concerning the growing number of Taleban checkpoints on most of the country’s main highways in recent months. An AAN report in October 2020, for example, described how Taleban checkpoints on the Maidan Wardak part of Highway 1 had become “long lasting,” after US airstrikes largely ceased following the Doha agreement. Item 3 also calls for preventing any “extortion,” a reference to increased Taleban ‘taxation’ along the highways.

Item 11 calls for the security of public infrastructure such as “power networks, [and] transportation.” Item 12 calls for “expelling foreign fighters and terrorist groups” and “joint combat” (Taleban and government forces?) against the foreign fighters to prevent their killing of civilians. Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar told the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in late September that there are “four groups of transnational terror networks” which have “symbiotic relations” with each other, as well as with regional criminal networks. Atmar also claimed to the Wolesi Jirga on 16 October that one out of every four to five fighters against the government is a foreigner. He said that the government would not make peace with them and that the foreign fighters would have to leave Afghan soil. While it is incontrovertible that some foreign jihadists are fighting in Afghanistan, the numbers claimed by Atmar are not backed up by evidence from the ground. Moreover, politically, it is one lever which Kabul hopes to use to persuade Washington to continue to back its administration, especially given the Taleban’s agreement in Doha to “prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

Item 13 calls for “Putting an end to arbitrary and extra-judicial punishments” and item 14 for “Preventing and stopping the targeting of individuals based on ethnicity and gender (on roads).” The latter refers to repeated abductions and killings of road travellers. The list also calls for blocking illegal routes with neighbouring countries (item 4) and for clarity about “relations with other countries (item 15),” an apparent reference to the much-reported Taleban interaction with countries in the region such as Pakistan and Iran. These proposed agenda items send a clear signal of what the Afghan government, backed by much of the public, consider to be the drivers of insecurity in Afghanistan.

While the Taleban included an agenda item (no 16) on “Ensuring the rights of women in line with Islamic principles and national traditions,” the government’s list made no specific reference to women. The government may have believed women’s rights are covered under the “legitimate rights and freedoms of citizens” and when “preserving the achievements of Afghans.”

In item 22, the IRoA team proposes a discussion on a “roadmap for political participation,” apparently intended to develop a mechanism for the Taleban’s participation in a future political set-up. The IRoA team has not proposed a specific mechanism because there is no consensus on this issue within the government and among other political leaders (some have previously suggested an interim government (see AAN’s analysis here).

By contrast, this subject is more detailed in the Taleban list. Its first six items prioritise what they have consistently called their main political goal, after ensuring a withdrawal of foreign troops; they want to discuss the establishment of an “Islamic government, the “type of future Islamic government” and “leadership.” Items 4 (defence and security sector) 5 (an “Islamic council”) and 6 (constitution) also fall into this category. These points signal that the Taleban seek to overhaul the current governance system, leadership, security institutions and the Afghan constitution. This will surely become a major subject of controversy as the major political groupings represented in the IRoA team have consistently stated that they are intent on preserving, to the extent possible, the current republican political order, with what they see as its gains. President Ghani had, however, offered constitutional reform in earlier attempts to get a peace process going. (See AAN analysis here and an analysis by International Crisis Group’s senior analyst Andrew Watkins in the footnote. [6]

While the IRoA, under the development section, posits creating foundations for delivery of public services, security of infrastructure, return of refugees and protection of resources, there is no mention of these in the Taleban’s list.  Both lists propose a discussion of programmes to support war victims and the ‘fight against drugs and corruption’, although these seem too specific to be spelled out in the peace talks. These issues could inform a joint declaration of intent. After an agreement is reached, the future government could implement the declaration.

One thing to be stressed is what appears to be a lack of consensus in the diverse Islamic Republic ‘camp’ on how far compromises for the sake of peace should go. One member of the negotiation team, Abdul Hafiz Mansur, alluded to this when he told the media on 22 December that disunity among political elites and leaders could jeopardise the talks with the Taleban, particularly over the issue of which authority should finally approve the agenda for future negotiations. Mansur insisted that the HCNR was “the highest forum which can make a decision about the peace process.” Two other negotiators, Attaullah Ludin and Fauzia Kufi, said the team needed guidelines and clarifications about the agenda, without specifying who should provide them. A two-day joint meeting of the HCNR leadership committee and the negotiation team on 26-27 December concluded that a technical committee should prepare the Islamic Republic’s priorities for the HCNR’s approval before the negotiation team departs for the second round of talks, which they could use as “supportive guidance.”

6. A provocative call to move the talks inside the country

When the two negotiating teams announced on 12 December that the second round of talks would be held on 5 January 2021, they did not specify the venue. On the same day, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib called for the next round of talks to be conducted inside the country. He said the Taleban could suggest the place and the government would build facilities for the talks there (see full text of the tweet in the footnote). [7] On 14 December, President Ghani “strongly” supported Mohib’s remarks:

We prefer the second round of peace negotiations to be held in Afghanistan. … If the Taleban claim that they are inside Afghanistan, why then are they not negotiating on Afghan soil? The Afghan government is ready to negotiate with them at a place of their choosing inside Afghanistan. … Afghans can negotiate in a tent and in cold weather, and this is not the time to set posh hotels as a precondition [for talks]. It is essential for all people to see how the negotiations are conducted, and what issues [they] are focused on and why. (See a video of his remarks here and the report here).

This suggestion was unexpected and seemed impractical from the start. Even members of the IRoA team shared this opinion. Ahmadi told Radio Nawruz on 22 December that holding the talks in Afghanistan was “an ideal, a worthy aspiration, but unlikely to be actually feasible.” The exact motive for this suggestion is unclear, but it was a unilateral call that could have further complicated the talks.

Speaking at the inauguration of the National Peace Secretariat (established by civil society organisations to reflect the public’s expectations, concerns and recommendations) on 16 December, HCNR chairman Dr Abdullah appeared flexible on the venue. He said that while the government preferred the next round of negotiations to be held inside the country, the final decision would depend on the agreement of the two sides. He also said this issue should not delay the next round of talks. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Taleban Political Office, Muhammad Naim Wardak, told the media on 15 December that the negotiation teams had agreed to resume the next round of talks in Doha on 5 January 2021. He added that demands to change this had been made by those who wanted to “disrupt the peace process because they saw their power and personal interests in jeopardy.”

The call for moving the talks inside the country also caused concern in Washington. On 14 December, US envoy Khalilzad tweeted that “Given how much is at stake, it is imperative that there is no delay in resumption of talks and they must resume on 5 January as agreed.”

After a two-day joint meeting with the negotiation team on 26-27 December, the HCNR leadership committee concluded that the next round of talks would again be held in Qatar (see here). Following this announcement, President Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqi announced that “based on the request of the heads of the negotiation team and the HCNR, advice of the international support group and in order to prevent any delay in the second round of talks, the president of Afghanistan agreed to the second round of negotiations to be conducted in Qatar. Our emphasis on conducting next rounds of negotiations inside Afghanistan persists.” The announcement came after Ghani and Abdullah held a meeting in which they “discussed the venue and time for the next round of peace talks.” It seems Abdullah had the last word in this affair triggered by the Palace and thereby strengthened the HCNR’s position in Kabul’s complicated peace talks-related landscape.

7. Conclusion

It took the Islamic Republic and Taleban negotiation teams 94 days to hammer out principles and rules of procedure for the next round of Intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha. The deadlock, and finally the need for mediation, undesired by both parties, shines a light on how laborious the second round of talks, set to begin on 5 January 2021, will be. Both sides have also shown that they might, at times, resort to unilateral actions that could further delay the talks.

The Taleban’s apparent concession on not using (Sunni) Hanafi jurisprudence as the sole authority for resolving disagreements during the talks means that disputes will now be referred to a committee. From the Taleban’s viewpoint, this was a small price to pay. By opting for a joint committee, the Taleban chose not to commit to the terms proposed by the IRoA such as “preservation of the rights and principles of the Shia and without discrimination against them.” While this is not a defeat for Afghanistan’s vocal (and concerned) Shia communities and their supporters, they will now have to fight for their rights on specific matters.

The two teams were unable in the first round to move substantially onto the second major subject, the agenda for future talks. Long preliminary lists of issues they wish to include in the agenda were exchanged and seemed to indicate that both teams would like to move forward, but needed to consult their leaderships. The lists reflect profoundly different, but well-known, priorities. The government is pushing for a ceasefire first, while the Taleban want to ensure an ‘Islamic’ form of government and everything else is settled before agreeing to a ceasefire. Reaching an agreement on sequencing and therefore prioritisation will be the biggest immediate challenge.

Meanwhile, violence, especially targeted killings, attributed mainly to the Taleban, has intensified as people in Afghanistan and elsewhere continue to question the Taleban’s commitment to peace. In an extraordinary move designed to convince the Taleban to reduce violent attacks in Afghanistan, Chairman of the [US] Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, flew to Doha on 15 December. “The most important part of the discussions I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Milley told the Wall Street Journal, adding, “Everything else hinges on that.” However, up till now, such face-to-face ultimatums by the US have led to only temporary reductions in Taleban violence at best. Moreover, thousands of US troops were withdrawn in 2020, either according to the agreement or unconditionally. By mid-January, the US will have just 2,500 soldiers left in the country with a continuing mandate only to defend from, not attack, the Taleban. US leverage over the Taleban is, therefore, already far reduced, and with it ANSF confidence. It means the Taleban’s political team starts the second round of talks with the Republic’s team backed by a military far more confident on the battlefield than they were a year ago.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Roxanna Shapour 

References

1 The team is called the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” because it does not only include representatives of the government (which the Taleban does not recognise) but also of various political groups and from civil society. See this AAN analysis for the positions of these diverse groups.
2 On 29 November 2020, Hasht-e Sobh reported that the government had suggested the “demand of the people of Afghanistan expressed at the Consultative Peace Loya Jirgas,” “Security Council Resolution 1325” and “will of the government of Afghanistan and Taleban” to be the bases for the talks in addition to the US-Taleban agreement. The report said the government had had to amend these points for the Taleban to accept them. In his Facebook post cited above, negotiation team member Ahmadi noted that the “demands of the people of Afghanistan” and the UNSC resolution 1325 were accepted as the bases for the talks. The government considers the 2019 and 2020 consultative Loya Jirgas as a clear illustration of the people’s demand because members of the national assembly, provincial councils, civil society representatives and various social groups participated in the gatherings, he said. According to Ahmadi, the UN’s repeated calls for durable peace clearly include UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2513 that supports the republic and rejects the emirate. Resoution 2513 was issued ten days after the US-Taleban agreement on 10 March 2020 and noted that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not recognized at the United Nations, and furthermore that the UN Security Council does not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
3 On 4 October, the BBC quoted sources from the IRoA negotiation team saying that representatives of the member-countries of the Afghanistan Peace Support Group were in contact with the two sides to resolve the “existing disagreement between the Taleban team and the government.” According to the BBC, the two sides could not agree on the rules of procedure for the talks and the teams’ contact groups, who were tasked with discussing the rules of procedure, had not met for the last week. 

On 6 October, Reuters quoted three “official sources” saying that the negotiators had “agreed on a code of conduct to safeguard against the risk of any breakdown.” The breakthrough was reportedly achieved with the help of US officials. The IRoA Negotiation Team refuted Reuters’ report (see tweet here), as did the spokesperson for the Taleban negotiation team, Muhammad Naim (see here).

On 12 October, the government’s negotiation team tweeted from its official account that “the contact groups of IRoA & other side held a meeting today evening. Detailed discussions took place on the contested issues, and both sides agreed to continue meeting as to reach a resolution.” A member of the government’s negotiation team, Muhammad Rasul Taleb, told the BBC that work on a mechanism proposed by the US, Qatar and other countries to resolve the problem and speed up the negotiations was ongoing. According to him, representatives of these countries had met the government and Taleban teams.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the India-based, state-owned, international English news channel, DD India, on 12 October, Dr Abdullah said: “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was not part of it [Doha agreement], but acknowledged it, not only [have we] acknowledged it, based on that agreement, we released 5,000 prisoners. So it is more than acknowledging [it].” He added that “without any reference to anything, we are ready to talk.”

On 20 October, Tolonews reported that each team’s contact group had been reduced to three members: Ghulam Faruq Majruh, Fatima Gailani and Rasul Taleb for the government, and Nabi Omari, Qari Din Muhammad and Latif Mansur for the Taleban. However, the two outstanding issues – the legal basis for resolving disputes and the status of the US-Taleban agreement – remained unresolved. On the same day, a member of the negotiation team told AAN that this new group had been tasked to work on a text and would not replace the original contact groups.

Tolonews on 25 October cited ‘sources’ as saying that the two sides had “agreed to allow Qatar to play a role as mediator to break the impasse over the disputed points.”

4 Tweets by the spokesman for the political office of the Taleban, Naim Wardak said: 

The two Intra-Afghan negotiating teams interchanged the preliminary lists of the agenda’s items and conducted preparatory illustrative discussions about the items. Since the agenda needs further consultations, both sides agreed that the break would begin on 14th December 2020 and the negotiations would start on January 5, 2021.

Both sides thank the Qatari state and the public for their hospitality and providing the prerequisite facilities.

5 On 8 December 2020, a member of the IRoA team who had already returned to Kabul and was awaiting news from Doha about a possible break told AAN that the Taleban had proposed the break. On 12 December, the BBC reported that, according to a source from the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), the government had proposed the break to allow the two negotiating teams to consult with their respective leaderships about the proposed agenda. Negotiator Habiba Sarabi told the media on 14 December that they were returning to Kabul not for a break, but for consultations because, she said, the issues proposed by the Taleban for the agenda were important and required “consultation with the leadership of the government and the political class.” 

Individual IRoA team members had returned to Afghanistan earlier. On 26 October, the media reported four names, Sayed Saadat Mansur Naderi, Fawzia Kufi, Matin Baig and Kalimullah Naqibi. A team member told AAN that Naderi had returned to manage his ministry, Baig had returned after one of his relatives was killed in Takhar and Kufi and Naqibi for personal reasons. On 24 November, the media reported that four other members (Sharifa Zurmati, Muhammad Nateqi, Hafiz Mansur and Ayub Ansari) were returning to Kabul that day.

6 Andrew Watkins, senior analyst on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group (ICG), provided the following comparison and analysis of the agenda items proposed by the government and Taleban in a series of tweets on 18 December: 

Reflecting on the two proposed agendas in Afghan peace talks, what stands out? 

Afghan govt implicitly demands: Taliban must cease relationship with Pakistan & vice versa; Taliban must also effectively give up means of generating revenue.

While Taliban included discussion of women’s “Islamic” rights, Afg govt did NOT specifically refer to women or minorities; instead placed rights & freedoms in the same point as “protection of Afghan achievements” (ie, preserving current constitution).

Unsurprisingly, few of Islamic Republic’s proposed agenda points suggest radically altering the current constitutional order. Points such as “a roadmap to political participation” sound more like the deal the Afghan govt struck with Hekmatyar in 2016.

Islamic Republic seeks to preserve status quo as much as possible… but lack of major revisions to current structure of govt could irk many Afghans who see strongly centralised presidential system as deeply unfair. Is it the right or wrong time to address these grievances?

An entire section of govt’s agenda proposes discussing aspects of development. These points are less relevant to resolving the war than post-peace initiatives. Such points may provide common ground for general agreement, but does not address causes/drivers of the conflict.

Instead, govt makes very clear what it believes are primary drivers of war in Afghanistan: multiple oblique references to Pakistan & role as sanctuary & supporter of Taliban. Has long been the lens through which many frame the war. But almost certain Taliban won’t discuss.Finally, neither side suggests an agenda that would rapidly move into interim govt arrangement (in spite of the stated preference of US envoy Khalilzad for this approach & fears the Taliban sought this). Positively, both agendas are outlines for comprehensive discussion.

Another observer of the peace process, Jonathan Schroden, compared the proposed agendas in a series of tweets on 17 December, including a table illustrating the “areas of overlap and gaps in the agenda points.”

7 Mohib tweeted the following: 

The remaining rounds of peace talks between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taleban must be pursued [held] inside the country. The government does not have a particular reservation about the location and is ready to make full preparation in any area of the country that the Taleban suggest, including building facilities there and proceed with the talks. Peace talks inside Afghanistan will create a credible special security zone for all and enable the Afghan people to own and oversee peace and negotiations. Negotiators will be aware of their fellow countrymen’s plight and demands more closely and in a better way, and it will prevent additional costs related to the [peace] process. For the intra-Afghan talks, it is imperative that the upcoming rounds of them be in Afghanistan so that peace is influenced by [prevailing] realities in Afghan society rather than by external conditions and [that it] is countrywide and durable. [When negotiations are conducted] abroad, peace and peacemakers are influenced by external conditions, and experience has shown that this kind of peace does not serve Afghanistan’s interests.

Intra-Afghan Talks (1): Rules of procedure agreed, but still no agenda as talks resume