Imran Khan: Peace is within reach in Afghanistan. A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise.

September 27, 2020

Imran Khan is prime minister of Pakistan.

An Afghan Army soldier flashes the peace sign from an armored vehicle during a training excercise in Herat on Sept. 24.
An Afghan Army soldier flashes the peace sign from an armored vehicle during a training excercise in Herat on Sept. 24. (Jalil Rezayee/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

We have arrived at a rare moment of hope for Afghanistan and for our region. On Sept. 12, delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban finally sat down in Doha, Qatar, to begin negotiations toward a political settlement that would bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.

With the exception of the resilient Afghans themselves, no people have paid a higher price for the conflict in Afghanistan than the people of Pakistan. Through decades of conflict, Pakistan has dealt with the responsibility of taking care of more than 4 million Afghan refugees. Guns and drugs have also flowed into our country. The wars have disrupted our economic trajectory and radicalized fringes of our own society. The Pakistan I had known growing up in the 1960s and 1970s changed in some deeply unsettling ways.

This experience taught us two important lessons. First, that we were too closely intertwined with Afghanistan by geography, culture and kinship for events in that country not to cast a shadow on Pakistan. We realized Pakistan will not know real peace until our Afghan brothers and sisters are at peace.

We also learned that peace and political stability in Afghanistan could not be imposed from the outside through the use of force. Only an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process, which recognizes Afghanistan’s political realities and diversity, could produce a lasting peace.

So, when President Trump wrote to me in late 2018 to ask for Pakistan’s assistance in helping the United States achieve a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, we had no hesitation in assuring the president that Pakistan would make every effort to facilitate such an outcome — and we did. Thus began arduous rounds of talks between the United States and the Taliban, which culminated in the February U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. This agreement, in turn, has laid the groundwork for talks between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban.

The path we have traveled to get here wasn’t easy, but we were able to press on thanks to the courage and flexibility that were on display from all sides. The United States and its allies facilitated the prisoner exchange between Kabul and the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban responded to the Afghan people’s yearning for peace.

The intra-Afghan negotiations are likely to be even more difficult, requiring patience and compromise from all sides. Progress could be slow and painstaking; there may even be the occasional deadlock, as Afghans work together for their future. At such times, we would do well to remember that a bloodless deadlock on the negotiating table is infinitely better than a bloody stalemate on the battlefield.

All those who have invested in the Afghan peace process should resist the temptation for setting unrealistic timelines. A hasty international withdrawal from Afghanistan would be unwise. We should also guard against regional spoilers who are not invested in peace and see instability in Afghanistan as advantageous for their own geopolitical ends.

Like the United States, Pakistan does not want to see Afghanistan become a sanctuary for international terrorism ever again. Since 9/11, more than 80,000 Pakistani security personnel and civilians have laid down their lives in perhaps the largest and most successful fight against terrorism. But Pakistan continues to be the target of attacks launched by externally enabled terrorist groups based in Afghanistan.

These terrorist groups pose a clear and present danger to global peace. We hope the Afghan government will take measures to control ungoverned spaces inside its territory from where terrorist groups are able to plan and carry out attacks against the Afghan people, the international coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan, and other countries in the region, including Pakistan. Like the United States, we do not want the blood and treasure we have shed in the war against terrorism to be in vain.

It is also time to start planning for the “day after” — how can the world help a postwar Afghanistan transition to sustainable peace? How do we create conditions that will enable the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, and other countries, to return to their homeland with dignity and honor?

My vision for Pakistan prioritizes development and prosperity for my country and our region through connectivity and economic diplomacy. Our recent investments in key economic connectivity projects can be harnessed to complement efforts for regional integration between South and Central Asia. Our initial discussions with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation on these issues have been encouraging. It is heartening that the United States and Pakistan are of one mind on the importance of a “peace dividend” for ensuring a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, regional peace and stability remain key to realizing the collective aspirations of our people for a better future. We are committed to multilateral collaboration to achieve this.

The first step toward that peace has been taken in Doha. Not seeing through the Afghanistan peace process or abandoning it for any reason would be a great travesty.

Imran Khan: Peace is within reach in Afghanistan. A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise.
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Editorial: Is Afghanistan being dragged to square one?

Afghanistan Times

Editorial

September 26, 2020

A game is being played on the fate of Afghanistan once again, primarily at the hands of key stakeholders and influencers in the country. The US is seemingly backtracking on everything that it purported to uphold and stand for. The history is going to repeat itself because Afghans are not cognizant of the narratives being presented, especially by the Taliban.

September 26, 1996, marks the arrival of the Taliban into Kabul and the brutal killing of the Afghan former President Dr. Najibullah. They stress a change to some governance structures and the security apparatus. They use violence and flex military muscles to gain leverage – all draw similarities to the circumstances of the 90s when Afghanistan was pulled to pieces. In a recent interview, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Peace Process Zalmay Khalilzad further aggrandized the Taliban as the US is giving in to their every demand. He said the Taliban wouldn’t accept a permanent ceasefire until there is a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The US in a manner is lobbying and advocating for the requests of the Taliban and is instigating that option for the rebels. This way the country is brazenly but slowly turning against the Afghan government, despite supporting it over the past two decades. But it shouldn’t be so; the US along with the international community should have pressurized the group to agree to a ceasefire.

Khalilzad has already reneged on its statement when he said that the US-Taliban agreement (which was signed in February) would be inked on the condition of a truce but that didn’t happen – it’s not even happening when the intra-Afghan talks are ongoing in Doha. The current situation resembles that of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan when Afghanistan was left isolated and cut off from the rest of the world while Afghanistan’s neighboring countries also did huge treason towards the country by cutting off trade routes and relations.

At this juncture, the American and coalition forces’ withdrawal bodes ill for the survival of the current government as the support to the government is being withdrawn with the Taliban coming into the scene. Although the current system enjoys broad-based support from the international community unlike Najib’s era, the negative upshot of a lack of such a cooperation mechanism on the part of the US will lead to a similar situation to that of President Najibullah – if not completely the same – because the Kabul government has been so far frail, perennially corrupt and ineffective due to lack of political consensus.

Such a situation doesn’t rule out yet another internecine war occurring as the Taliban have been grandly emboldened and the government weakened. Any miscalculated step on the part of any stakeholder would take us back to square one and thus all of them, especially the Afghan leaders and elites, should learn from the past mistakes and avoid repeating the history yet again; unless they deliberately want to do so.

Editorial: Is Afghanistan being dragged to square one?
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Taliban assaults Helmand capital as U.S. officials plead for a ‘reduction in violence’

The Taliban launched an all-out assault on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, as U.S. officials continue to wrongly claim that those attacks are in violation of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal.

The Taliban launched its offensive on Lashkar Gah last weekend and shut down the road linking the provincial capital with neighboring Kandahar City. Taliban fighters struck Police Districts 3 and 4, the Babaji area of the city and “three districts that are near the center of the province,” TOLONews reported. Two of the districts appear to be Nawa and Nad Ali.

Afghan police abandoned several checkpoints, ceding the areas to the Taliban.

Afghan Commandos have been deployed to help retake areas of the city. Two Afghan helicopters collided in Nawa district, killing a reported eight to 15 soldiers. The Taliban claimed that Afghan Army Commandos and four pilots were killed in the crash.

The fighting has been so intense that the U.S. military has been forced to launch airstrikes to help beat back the Taliban. Colonel Sonny Leggett, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said that the military “will continue to provide support in defense of the ANDSF under attack by the Taliban.”

U.S. officials, including General Scott Miller, the commander of USFOR-A and Resolute Support Mission, and Ross Wilson, the Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, have wrongly said that the Taliban’s offensive violates the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement that was signed between the two on Feb. 29, 2020.

“It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement,” Miller stated.

“This violence, which is not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement, leads only to unacceptable loss of life and destruction,” Wilson tweeted.

However, the deal, which has been published at the U.S. State Department’s web site, makes no mention of requiring the Taliban to commit to “reduction in violence.” Nor is there clause that indicates that the Taliban must reduce its attacks on Afghan forces in the deal. In fact, the only mention of the term “reduction” is related to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations,” the deal reads.

It is possible that there is a side deal between the U.S. and the Taliban that requires the latter to commit to a “reduction in violence,” but if this is true, the Taliban has explicitly denied this, and has claimed it is living up to its end of the bargain. There have been reports of a so-called “secret annex,” but that is supposed to only contain plans for U.S. troop withdrawals.

U.S. military officers have claimed that the Taliban has committed to a reduction in violence in the past. For instance, just five days after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal , the military launched airstrikes against the Taliban in Helmand. At the time, Leggett, the USFOR-A spokesman, said that the “Taliban leadership promised the international community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments.”

The Taliban responded by saying that it only agreed to reduce their attacks as the U.S. and the Taliban finalized their deal. Once the deal was signed, it would resume offensive operations against Afghan forces, as it was permitted to do so. [See FDD‘s Long War Journal Report, U.S. military perplexed by Taliban living up to letter of agreement]

U.S. officials have intentionally mischaracterized the withdrawal deal by claiming that it indicated the Taliban would break with Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the Taliban would hunt down and “destroy” Al Qaeda, even though it has been its steadfast ally for three decades. Instead, the Taliban was consulting with Al Qaeda and reassuring them that the agreement would not sever the relationship even as it was negotiating with the U.S. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, U.N.: Taliban “regularly consulted” with Al Qaeda throughout negotiations with U.S. and Analysis: Taliban leader declares victory after U.S. agrees to withdrawal deal.]

Instead, the Taliban made the oft-repeated commitment that it would prevent Al Qaeda from attacking the U.S. and its allies. This is the same ‘commitment’ the Taliban made numerous times prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban has made similar promises since 9/11, yet it has harbored Al Qaeda and other terror groups that have continually plotted against the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile the Taliban claims that Al Qaeda or any other foreign terror group is not operating on its soil. If Al Qaeda isn’t present in Afghanistan, then it can’t be considered a legitimate counterterrorism partner, as Pompeo and others have somehow claimed. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Taliban falsely claims al Qaeda doesn’t exist in Afghanistan.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Don’t trust estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan

BY BILL ROGGIO

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

September 22, 2020 | admin@longwarjournal.org | @billroggio

The U.S. government, military, and intelligence services have provided inaccurate assessments of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued that tradition by recently regurgitating that Al Qaeda has fewer than 200 fighters in the country.

This estimate, like previous ones, should not be trusted.

U.S. officials have downplayed Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for several reasons. Chief among them, the seemingly non-threatening number has been used to justify the preferred policy of disengaging from Afghanistan. The Obama Administration sought to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban and fulfill their campaign promise of leaving Afghanistan by the end of Obama’s second term.

It would have been difficult – if not impossible – to achieve this if Al Qaeda had a major presence in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban. Additionally, there are many problems with how U.S. intelligence services have defined Al Qaeda and understood its relationship with allied groups.

The “50 to 100” Fallacy

In July 2010, Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, estimated that there were merely “50 to 100 Al Qaeda” operatives based in Afghanistan. This estimate remained fixed for nearly six years, until the U.S. and Afghan militaries raided two Al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar and killed or captured more than 150 Al Qaeda fighters.

By the time Panetta provided his 50 to 100 estimate, the groundwork for underestimating Al Qaeda’s strength had already been laid for a year.

In May 2009, General David Petraeus said that Al Qaeda no longer operated in Afghanistan, and that its leadership was based in Pakistan’s tribal agency. At the time, the U.S. was conducting the drone campaign to hunt Al Qaeda leaders and operatives based in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan.

In Oct. 2009, General James Jones claimed that there were fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. In May 2010, some individuals began to question if there were any “Al Qaeda guys” operating in Afghanistan at all.

An Obviously Short-Sighted Estimate

FDD’s Long War Journal has closely tracked operations against Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan for the past decade and a half. Based on the operational tempo against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the number of operatives killed or captured during raids, it was obvious there was a major problem with Panetta’s 50 to 100 claim.

FDD’s Long War Journal gathered the data released by the U.S. military in its press releases on raids against the Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied jihadist groups in Afghanistan. These press releases were issued beginning in 2007 and continued until June 2013. The press releases only documented a subset of the raids against Al Qaeda, U.S. military and intelligence officials have told FDD’s Long War Journal. Therefore, only the tip of the iceberg of Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan could be glimpsed. Had other data, such as press reports, Al Qaeda martyrdom statements, and information from Afghanistan’s military and National Directorate of Security been included, the iceberg would have become more visible.

Still, using the U.S. military’s own data provided all the ammunition needed to disprove the static 50 to 100 estimate. By Oct. 2010, the military’s own press releases showed that Al Qaeda was operating in 62 different districts in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Fifty to 100 Al Qaeda operatives could not possible manage such an extensive network.

The military’s own press releases on operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan provided fantastic gems that destroyed to 50 to 100 narrative.

In Sept. 2011, the military announced the death of an Al Qaeda “associate” known as Sabar Lal Melma, a former Guantanamo detainee who returned to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Buried at the end of the press release, the military disclosed that “Coalition security forces have captured or killed more than 40 al-Qaida insurgents in eastern Afghanistan” between Jan. and Sept. of 2011. The year wasn’t even over. And eastern Afghanistan is merely one region of Afghanistan. As previously noted, at this time, Al Qaeda was operating in more than half of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Despite information contained within the military’s own press releases, there was no effort by the military or the intelligence community to revise or hide the estimate of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan. The 50 to 100 number was repeated as gospel for well over five years.

In June 2013, the U.S. military ended its reporting on military operations agains the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their allies. The reason given was that the Afghan military was now in charge of security. However, FDD’s Long War Journal was told that its analysis of the raids hurt the Obama administration’s case of a depleted Al Qaeda.

In May 2014, FDD’s Long War Journal mapped the data relating to the seven years of raids against Al Qaeda and its allies. The data showed that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Those raids have taken place in 110 of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts. Again, these raids were only what the U.S. military reported; there were far more which were not.

Death of the “50 to 100” estimate

Then, in Oct. 2015, the fallacy of the static 50 to 100 estimate was laid bare. U.S. and Afghan forces raided two Al Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in Kandahar province. One of the two camps was situated over 30 square miles and was described as the largest Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in late 2001.

More than 150 Al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured during that raid alone.

Only after the Shorabak raids did the U.S. military revise its estimate from 50 to 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan – this time from to 100 to 300.

A new, sticky “200” estimate

Pompeo’s estimate of less than 200 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is not new, either. The 200 number first appeared in the Nov. 2018 Department of Defense Inspector General’s quarterly report on Afghanistan (the same report also grossly estimated the Taliban’s strength).

Therefore, the estimate of 200 is already two years old.

Why?

In addition to the political angle of downplaying Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan to justify withdrawal, there are other reasons this problem has spanned a decade. Once an estimate is thrown out there and is put into the bloodstream, there is little effort made or interest in revising the figure. The estimate is then repeated despite contrary evidence.

Also there is a significant misunderstanding of Al Qaeda in the military, intelligence community and the media. The group is operating clandestinely in Afghanistan under the banner of the Taliban – and that makes it difficult to accurately assess its operations. Al Qaeda intentionally hides its footprint in Afghanistan so as not to sabotage the Taliban’s political efforts.

The Taliban cannot get the U.S. to agree to leave Afghanistan if Al Qaeda is openly supporting the Taliban’s efforts.

A common view of Al Qaeda is that it is an organization dominated by Arabs, and thus Afghans and Pakistanis do not play a role in the group. However, Al Qaeda has a significant cadre of Afghan and Pakistanis in both its leadership and rank and file. The U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan from 2005 to 2018, as well as U.S. military operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, highlights that fact. Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani jihadist, rose to lead Al Qaeda’s military before he was killed in a drone strike. There are numerous other examples.

The formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in Sept. 2014 remains widely misunderstood. This Al Qaeda branch, which alone has hundreds of fighters, is made up of operatives from the constellation of jihadist groups in the region, including but not limited to the Afghan Taliban, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and other non-aligned Pakistani Taliban groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohmmad, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and Harakat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami.

This constellation of regional jihadi groups, which used to be known as Al Qaeda and Allied Movements, also fight alongside Al Qaeda as well as conduct joint operations, and thus increase Al Qaeda’s combat power. This also provides Al Qaeda with the opportunity to fill its membership from the leadership and ranks of allied groups when needed.

Additionally, an operative may actually be member of more than one group. (The U.S. military referred to these Al Qaeda leaders as “dual hatted.”) Individuals such as Aminullah Peshwari and Qari Zia Rahman are perfect examples of dual-hatted leaders.

Finally, the fluid border between Afghanistan and Pakistan makes it impossible to assess Al Qaeda strength in either country. Al Qaeda and allied groups frequently cross this border to conduct attacks, establish bases of operations, and shelter given the security situation.

Al Qaeda’s exact strength in Afghanistan may never be known. Given the history of U.S. officials of downplaying this important statistic, one should be highly skeptical of efforts to lowball Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

Taliban assaults Helmand capital as U.S. officials plead for a ‘reduction in violence’
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Afghan Talks Are Historic Chance for Peace, Says Top U.S. Negotiator

Afghan peace talks that began in Doha on September 12 are a “historic opportunity” that could bring a close to four decades of conflict in the country and end America’s longest war, said the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation on Thursday. The ongoing talks are the “heart of the Afghan peace process,” said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “It’s important to be fully aware of the significance of this moment, and to recognize its historic relevance.” With a note of a cautious optimism, he said there is hope but still a long road ahead, with many thorny issues to be negotiated.
Zalmay Khalilzad at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 28, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Zalmay Khalilzad at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 28, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
For the Afghan people, “the cost of not moving forward” is too high, he said. After decades of bearing the brunt of violence and conflict, they are “yearning for peace and they are expressing it in many ways.
The intra-Afghan negotiations represent a major milestone in the country’s four decades of conflict: the first time the parties have engaged in direct, official peace talks. “This key step puts agency with the Afghans, which is the only way for [the peace process] to succeed,” Khalilzad said in an online event hosted by USIP. But, after two weeks, the two sides are still debating the basic rules and procedures for the talks. More difficult negotiations on substantive issues—like the very nature of a future political system, women’s rights, and how or if to integrate Taliban fighters into state security forces—remain to be tackled.

How We Got Here

“Based on the assumption that there is no viable path to military victory,” Khalilzad said the U.S. sought to engage both the Taliban and the Afghan government in parallel. It took a year and a half of talks for the U.S.-Taliban deal to be inked in late February of this year. The agreement and the direct Afghan talks “have opened the door to the two sides sitting together to correct history,” said Khalilzad, referring to the failure by Afghan parties to seize the opportunity to build peace after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in the late 1980s. That missed chance for peace “weighs on [Afghan] leaders today,” he said.

The U.S.-Taliban deal stipulated the withdrawal of U.S. troops in return for Taliban guarantees that it would not harbor transnational terrorist groups, like al-Qaida or ISIS. It also committed the Taliban to begin intra-Afghan talks with the Kabul government by March 10—an important component as the militant group refused for years to directly negotiate with the Afghan government, which it considers illegitimate.

But it took six more months for those talks to start. Another component of the U.S.-Taliban deal covered the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taliban, which was supposed to take place by March 10. Instead, disagreements between the two sides drew this process out until September, when the last batch of Taliban prisoners were released, finally paving the way for direct talks.

All of that was just a “prologue to the start of the book that the two sides … must write,” he said.

Are the Taliban Serious?

Many critics of the current process believe the Taliban are simply using the negotiations as a diversionary tactic, hoping to bide time until the U.S. withdraws and then seize power, noted USIP Board Chair and former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, who moderated the discussion. For Khalilzad, the group has demonstrated that it is serious about the talks, and views peace as in its self-interest.

The Taliban negotiating team is comprised of some of their most senior members, including their top cleric and high-ranking figures within the group from military, diplomatic, and religious sectors. He also said that the Taliban learned a lesson from its brief period of rule in the 1990s: To be accepted by the international community, Afghanistan must have inclusive governance. This is all the more critical today, as the Taliban recognizes no matter who governs Afghanistan, the country desperately needs international aid.

Khalilzad said that the Taliban had adhered to its commitments made in the U.S.-Taliban deal, including not killing any U.S. forces this year and not attacking major cities. Another component of the deal called on the Taliban to sever ties with groups like al-Qaida. “With regard to terrorism and al-Qaida, what I can say is the Talibs have taken some steps, based on the commitment they have made, positive steps, but they have some distance still to go,” he said during congressional testimony on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, violence in Afghanistan has risen to unacceptable levels, he told the House of Representatives Oversight Committee. At least 57 Afghan security forces were killed in clashes with Taliban fighters across Afghanistan on Sunday night—the most violent day since talks began. Khalilzad said this “decreases confidence in the peace process,” adding the Taliban would “pay the price” with the Afghan people if they don’t reduce violence levels.

We know that a reduction in violence is possible,” said Khalilzad, alluding to the two Eid cease-fires that held this year. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Taliban see violence as a key leverage point in the negotiations and are thus unlikely to agree to a comprehensive cease-fire early in the process. The Afghan government side holds a wholly different view. “From our point of view, of course, the cease-fire is the most important thing,” Fatima Gailani, a member of Afghanistan’s peace negotiating team, told NBC News. “This was the request of the people of Afghanistan.”

What’s at Stake for Afghans—Especially Afghan Women

Taliban and government negotiators will have to bridge the vastly disparate views each side has on a future, post-conflict political system. The Afghan government aims to retain “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and united republic,” as President Ghani told a USIP audience this summer. On the other hand, the Taliban’s view is that Afghanistan should be an Islamic emirate with the Afghan people owing their loyalty to an Islamic government.

A core issue for the United States and international community is closely associated with this debate. Many are concerned that Afghan women’s rights could be a casualty of a political settlement. There are very real fears of a return to the Taliban’s draconian rule, which was especially harsh for women. “A settlement must recognize and honor the sacrifices that Afghan women have made,” wrote USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi after the talks started.

Khalilzad spoke at length of the United States’ commitment to protecting the gains Afghan women have made and the centrality of their rights for a peaceful Afghanistan:

“We will work with our international partners to continue to press on the rights of women, and of religious and ethnic minorities. … While the ultimate political settlement is one for the Afghans themselves to decide, the United States and the international community are deeply committed to human rights and women’s rights. The Afghans must negotiate a solution that suits their history and their culture. But we have made it clear we expect the women of Afghanistan to have their voices heard … The international community expects the same.”

Despite repeated attempts to allay these fears, many remain wary over the future of Afghan women’s place in society. The fact that only four of the 25 Afghan government negotiators are women furthered those concerns. (None of the Taliban’s 25 negotiators are women.) Still, Khalilzad said that America’s “encounter with Afghanistan … has [led to] an enduring transformation on so many levels,” leading, in part, to women’s direct participation in the talks.

America’s Longest War

Intra-Afghan talks started a day after the 19-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and represent the most responsible avenue for the United States to extricate from its longest war. Washington is set to reduce troop levels to 4,500 by November and withdrawal all forces by May 2021, as part of the U.S.-Taliban deal. Khalilzad reiterated on several occasions that this withdrawal plan is based on the condition that the Taliban sever ties with transnational terrorist groups. “Being in Afghanistan militarily is not an end itself,” but Washington must be assured there will be “no terrorist threat against the United States on the territory of Afghanistan,” said Khalilzad.

In the end, Khalilzad said the United States believes that a stable Afghanistan at peace at home and with its neighbors is not just an Afghan priority, but in the interest of the United States, the region, and the international community.

“We could have withdrawn, we didn’t need anyone’s permission to leave if that’s all what we wanted to do,” he said in his closing remarks. “But the purpose of our diplomacy has been—and the reason for making that conditional—has been to leave a good legacy behind to help Afghans.”

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Long-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations began on September 12 in Doha, presenting a path to end four decades of conflict in the country and conclude America’s longest war. USIP’s Scott Worden looks at what led to the talks starting, what’s at stake for Afghans, and how the U.S. can support the process.

For more analysis on the Afghan peace process, listen to Scott Worden’s episode of the On Peace podcast.

Afghan Talks Are Historic Chance for Peace, Says Top U.S. Negotiator
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Five Things to Know About the Afghan Peace Talks

The intra-Afghan negotiations that began on Saturday represent a watershed moment in the war: the first direct, official talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These historic talks commenced 19 years and one day after al-Qaida’s 9/11 terrorist attacks drew the United States into Afghanistan’s civil war. Just getting the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban to the table is an accomplishment. The main reason the talks materialized is the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February of this year; that agreement delivered a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops, which met the Taliban’s years-long precondition for opening talks with the Afghan government.

Members of the Afghan government delegation, including Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, during the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020. (Ron Przysucha /U.S. State Department)
Members of the Afghan government delegation, including Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, during the opening of intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020. (Ron Przysucha /U.S. State Department)
As hard as it has been to get to talks, concluding them will likely be harder. To reach a durable settlement, the Afghan parties will need to address underlying tensions that are the root causes of decades of violence. USIP’s Afghanistan experts explain what you need to know as the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.

1. Successful intra-Afghan negotiations offer the United States the most responsible way to end America’s longest war.

Vikram Singh: Getting to this point has not been easy. American officials spent a decade trying. U.S. negotiator Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad relied on a leverage paradox: the threat of U.S. forces withdrawing pushed the Afghan government to accept Taliban preconditions while the risk that American forces might stay, if only to conduct limited counterterrorism operations, focused the Taliban on a political settlement as a desirable path to their goals.

Washington remains the most powerful actor in the Afghan conflict, but it is not a party to these talks among Afghans as they try to resolve 40 years of civil war stretching back to the 1979 Soviet invasion. From the U.S. standpoint, success looks like an Afghan peace that enables an end to the U.S. combat role and ensures al-Qaida, ISIS, and other terrorist groups cannot operate freely.

The first concern for the U.S. will simply be sustaining the talks. A reduction in violence—like that seen after the U.S.-Taliban framework deal in February—is probably necessary. Another issue to watch will be how the parties address the future of security forces both during the process and in a final settlement. Issues like security force integration, demobilization of fighters, and how integrated Afghan security forces will enforce a long-term cessation of hostilities and fight terrorists will all bear on core U.S. interests. American officials will want to influence how Afghan forces work with international partners both during the peace process and after any agreement.

U.S. officials will watch how intra-Afghan decisions shape Afghanistan’s economic system and its commitment to fundamental human rights. Washington’s willingness to marshal international economic assistance for Afghanistan provides key leverage since the Taliban, the government, and other Afghan factions all seek long-term international assistance. Looming over all specific issues is the future governance model for Afghanistan. The United States will want to ensure Afghans increase security and that terrorist groups cannot enhance their safe havens during any possible interim government and constitutional reform process.

Across all of these issues, American leaders should signal what Washington needs in order to keep the U.S. and its partners engaged. U.S. officials also need to be clear about how the United States expects to partner with a new Afghan government to help enforce a peace agreement and meet American counterterrorism requirements.

2. This is the first time the warring parties in the Afghan conflict will be directly negotiating.

Scott Smith: The talks that have just begun between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha are of singular importance because they will be the first time since conflict began in Afghanistan that direct and formal talks will take place between the actual belligerents to the conflict. The Geneva process in the 1980s that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops was negotiated between the Communist-backed government in Kabul and Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States serving as guarantors. The mujahedeen factions who had fought the Soviet-backed Kabul government were never formally involved. Their exclusion contributed to a civil war in the 1990s that led to the rise of the Taliban.

The Bonn negotiations that followed the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 were held among the feuding Afghan factions who had been party to the civil war in the 1990s—basically the mujaheddin factions that had been excluded at Geneva—but excluded the Taliban themselves. In Doha, for this first time, representatives of the main Afghan parties to this longstanding conflict will engage with each other. Their task will be to finally find a political formula in which they can live together and resolve their conflicts without violence. It will not be easy, but they will hopefully approach this task with an understanding that this is a historic opportunity.

3. The Afghan government and Taliban will have to reconcile their fundamental differences over the country’s system of government.

Scott Worden: The most dominant discussion among Afghans in the lead up to these talks has been about what system of government a peaceful Afghanistan should have. The Afghan government, and a large majority of citizens, strongly support the current “Islamic Republic” defined by a democratic process for choosing government leaders, separation of powers between independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and equal rights for women and men to participate in the political process. There is a strong determination among government and civil society leaders to “protect the gains” made in civil and political rights since the 2004 constitution was adopted.

The Taliban call themselves an “Emirate” and have espoused a core goal of establishing an “Islamic system.” They have not defined what may need to be changed in the current constitution to make a government truly Islamic in their view. But the prevailing assumption is that a Taliban-run government would look very much like the restrictive regime they established in the late 1990s, which was led by unelected mullahs and denied women’s rights and most civil liberties Afghans enjoy today. Taliban spokesmen have tried to assuage doubters with a deliberately vague assertion that they believe in “all women’s rights and civil rights that are provided by Islam” without discussing what, exactly those rights are.

The starkly divergent positions of the two sides on the nature of the state raise two important questions for the talks. First, will the Taliban accept popular elections as the main way to choose the country’s leaders? As one of the Afghan negotiators put it after the opening day of talks, President Ghani may have been elected with low voter turnout, but Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada was selected with no voter turnout. Second, who decides what laws are in accordance with Islam? The current constitution states that no law may be contrary to the principles of Islam, but clearly relies on secular legislation to govern the state and empowers the non-religious Supreme Court to interpret them. By contrast, the Taliban regime required that all laws be derived from Sharia, which could plausibly be one of their core arguments in the coming months and represent a much more restrictive standard.

Ultimately, it will be important to look beyond general statements about preserving rights in theory to how each side plans to interpret rights in practice during talks.

4. For an agreement to be durable, it must protect and promote Afghan women’s rights.

Belquis Ahmadi: Despite widespread uncertainty, the intra-Afghan negotiations are a reason for hope. After four decades of conflict, the warring Afghan parties are set to discuss an end to the war to achieve stability, peace, and unity. A successful negotiation will benefit all Afghans, but this agreement must protect women in particular.

A settlement must recognize and honor the sacrifices that Afghan women have made. For decades they have held society together, raised a new generation of Afghans, and have fought for—in high offices and in the streets—a peaceful future for every Afghan. Afghan women’s rights activists have led international campaigns calling attention to the plight of women and the fragility of civil society, have launched petitions, and written letters to world leaders and the Taliban demanding transparency in the process and an end to violence. Unlike 20 years ago, Afghan women today are working in all sectors of society, including education, health care, security, economic and social development, and across government.

As negotiations proceed, there is even greater need for women’s contribution at all levels. Women must be engaged in rebuilding the country, in implementing and monitoring a settlement, and in reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Women must continue to participate in the full social, political, and economic life of Afghanistan, protecting this is the duty of all parties.

Furthermore, preventing further conflict means giving peace and human rights to all, as this strengthens Afghan society. A settlement must be inclusive of women, as without women, civil society and the state are more fragile and exclusive. A settlement that does not protect women would render the sacrifices that so many have made meaningless—and grant peace to the few while forgetting the many.

5. The Taliban are serious about talks, but don’t currently think they need to give much.

Johnny Walsh: The main goal of essentially every Afghanistan peace initiative for 10 years has been to break through the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. The U.S.-Taliban agreement finally did so by satisfying the Taliban’s longstanding precondition that the U.S. declare a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The main significance of that deal, therefore, was to make these intra-Afghan negotiations possible.

With that timetable in hand, the Taliban appear to take the long-awaited talks among Afghans quite seriously. Their negotiating team is extremely senior; their top cleric leads it, and it includes a range of top-tier figures within the group from military, diplomatic, and religious backgrounds. Their public statements about the talks further suggest a group gearing up for a meaty discussion of issues at the heart of the conflict, rather than a perfunctory or one-off meeting.

The Taliban nonetheless perceive that they enter these talks in a strong position—but seriousness about the process may not imply eagerness to compromise. A common Taliban view is that they have effectively won the war, the U.S. will soon leave, and the Taliban will be left as the strongest Afghan party. For some, this means they can demand predominance in any future government; for others, it means the main effort remains a military victory; still for others, reaching some equitable settlement is important because the war may never end without one. A successful deal will depend on the latter view prevailing. This in turn will depend on negotiators from both sides finding a formula that satisfies just enough of the Taliban’s objectives to warrant their stopping more than a quarter century of continual fighting.

Five Things to Know About the Afghan Peace Talks
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To Get to Afghan Talks, Lots of Last-Minute Deals — and Nose Swabs

By 

The New York Times

Months of delays over issues as big as prisoner swaps and as small as haircuts, with extra coronavirus complications, made the Afghan flight to meet the Taliban no sure bet.

Peace negotiations between the Afghan governement and the Taliban began, after many false starts, on Saturday.
Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

DOHA, Qatar — Until it happened, few believed that it actually would.

To get the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government into one room for direct negotiations took months even after the insurgents agreed to it in February as part of an agreement with the United States. And getting to that agreement, which delivered the insurgents’ main demand — the withdrawal of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan — had taken nearly a decade of on-again-off-again attempts.

As the start of talks between the two Afghan sides faced delay after delay, diplomats who had arrived in Doha for the opening ceremony waited, repeatedly changed their flights, and some even left. The negotiating team in Kabul and members of the press corps traveling with them were repeatedly swabbed with Covid-19 tests — a requirement by Qatar, which had relaxed its strict quarantine travel restrictions to make the meeting happen in the first place.

The gravest hangup was over the completion of a prisoner swap. The U.S. deal with the Taliban envisioned the exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 members of the Afghan forces in 10 days. But it took six months. The last hurdle was figuring out a face-saving solution regarding six Taliban prisoners that Australia, France, and even some in the U.S. government did not want released, as they were behind attacks that had killed Western soldiers.

Taliban prisoners, before being released, at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan in May. 
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Eventually, a small plane came from Qatar to take those six to house arrest in Doha so that the talks could finally start. One official mentioned that negotiations went down to the minute the plane took off, including trying to persuade the six men to agree to haircuts so they would be presentable in public.

Once the prisoners flew, a flight taking the negotiators to Doha became a possibility. But having followed these talks closely for the past couple years, I knew anything could still derail them — visa trouble, Covid-19 restrictions, or tantrums over even small details.

Last July, for example, when a diverse group from Afghanistan came to Doha for an informal discussion seen as an icebreaker for formal talks, it nearly fell apart at the door. As the delegation from Kabul waited in the hallways of the Sheraton hotel, the Taliban were stopped for a security check as they made their way inside. Their lead negotiator then, Sher Mohamad Abas Stanekzai, seeing that dozens of cameras were focused on them, refused. When the security guards insisted, Mr. Stanekzai threw his folder at the table and walked back out. It took an hour to get the Taliban into the hall.

On the plane from Kabul on Friday, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation and the delegation’s leader, said that he only became sure the talks would go ahead at the moment the plane carrying the prisoners finally took off.

“Since yesterday afternoon, I was more sure,” Mr. Abdullah said on the delegation’s plane. Then he smiled and added, “unless the plane doesn’t start or something.”

On board were equal numbers of journalists and negotiators and officials. Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar said the Afghan government had tried hard to make sure the press came along despite Qatar’s coronavirus travel restrictions.

“We represent a system where freedom of the press is one of its pillars,” he said.

Journalists, negotiators and officials on the flight to the peace talks. Fawzia Koofi, at center right, is one of three women in the Afghan delegation, her arm in bandages after surviving an assassination attempt.
Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

The day after, as the ceremony kicked off, with hundreds of diplomats filling the grand ballroom, the public address announcer repeatedly urged: “Please wear your masks.”

The leaders of both delegations struck a measured tone in their speeches — creating optimism that both sides were genuine about the talks. Then, there were more than 15 ministerial speeches from various countries, an indication of the Afghan conflict’s complexity. Almost all the speeches were via video conference because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, sapping the energy from the hall. Many delegates from both sides started browsing on their phones. Others started dozing.

The new Taliban chief negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, was hunched in his seat in a monk-like stillness, rarely looking at the screen. Mawlawi Haqqani, 62, did not bother to put on the translation headset even though all the speeches were in English, which he does not understand. Occasionally, he ran a hand through his graying beard. An hour into the speeches, he slowly parted the red folder in front of him, lowered his head to take a peek, and shut it again, placing his pen on top.

Mawlawi Haqqani, the head of the Taliban’s courts, is a well-respected seminary teacher in the Taliban ranks. Many analysts see his appointment to lead the talks as a sign that the Taliban are worried about the potential for internal schism because of the talks. Unlike the negotiations with the Americans, where the end goal of withdrawal of foreign forces was clear, the discussions with the Afghan side will bring up issues — a cease-fire, women’s rights, details of power sharing — that will test the Taliban’s unity. He is said to carry the kind of influence that might keep far-flung and often very local insurgent cells united.

On the republic side, those rifts are in the open, the political elite still struggling to unite after a disputed election. Behind the scenes of the launch of talks in Doha, those divides were on display in disagreements over protocol. Details like who would sit where, and whether Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Atmar would give the speech, played out till the last minute, frustrating the hosts and diplomats, even as the two men managed a facade of unity.

Abdullah Abdullah with members of the Afghan delegation at the peace talks in Doha. 
Credit…Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Members of the republic’s negotiation team said they were gelling well, and that they had found a unity of voice. They were fighting for a shared set of values, they said, including democracy and civil liberties.

But what was clear was that the Kabul they will be reporting to needed to make peace with itself.

In the hours after the launch event, the hall was buzzing with media — a large number of them young journalists, including three women reporters, who had come from Kabul. They gathered around every Taliban official they could find, bombarding them with questions.

The Taliban officials answered with patience — and many seemed to be enjoying the challenge and interaction. They were asked about women’s rights, and whether the group had changed its hard-line ways since their days in power when they ruthlessly enforced the confinement of women to their homes.

Taliban delegates wiggled their way out of explaining why there were no women in their delegation — the government side had three — by attacking what they called the hypocrisy of the Western nations supporting the cause.

Abdul Salam Hanafi, a member of the Taliban delegation, speaking with reporters in Doha.
Credit…Mujib Mashal/The New York Times

“America has had about 45 presidents — show me one female president?” the Taliban negotiating team’s spokesman, Mohammed Naem, told one of the journalists.

But in a private chat, one of the negotiators had a more sheepish answer when journalists from Kabul kept pressing the same question: Well, he said, we didn’t have any such women on our side.

Heat came from the Taliban side, too.

A turbaned journalist associated with the insurgents cornered Nader Nadery, a member of the negotiating team from Kabul. Mr. Nadery made a point of noting that he was representing an Afghan republic with an elected president — implying a steep difference with the Taliban’s autocratic Islamic Emirate government.

“A president with just one million votes, and that, too, with fraud?” the journalist replied, referring to the disputed election last year that had a low turnout because of violence.

“Well, Mullah Haibatullah doesn’t even have one vote, and he is hiding somewhere,” Mr. Nadery said, referring to the leader of the Taliban. “Let’s respect each other, give each other dignity, and find a way out of this conflict.”

An hour after the heated exchange, during the coffee break, Mr. Nadery tapped the shoulder of the journalist as he passed him and they embraced with a smile.

To Get to Afghan Talks, Lots of Last-Minute Deals — and Nose Swabs
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Two Parties Too Wary for Peace? Central questions for talks with the Taleban in Doha

Christine Roehrs • Ali Yawar Adili • Sayed Asadullah Sadat

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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For the first time, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taleban are coming together, officially, and in person, to negotiate power sharing and peace.  While the start of the talks was somewhat delayed by disagreements on the last prisoners to be released, the negotiating teams in Doha are now ready to go.  But there are big questions about the prospect for these talks to result in anything ground-breaking. The participants need to overcome years of hostilities, bloodshed and deep-seated mutual mistrust as they try to reconcile their competing visions of the shape of the future state. AAN’s Christine Roehrs, Ali Yawar Adili, and Sayed Asadullah Sadat (with input from Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali) have put together a Q&A in order to help with understanding the set-up, the participants, and their respective agendas. They also assess the talks’ chances of success.

Two men sit next to an Afghan national flag at the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop overlooking Kabul on 1 September 2020. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/ AFP

Saturday September 12 marks the start of the long-awaited peace talks in Doha, Qatar. The Taleban confirmed their presence, saying that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would like to declare its readiness to partake in the inauguration ceremony of Intra-Afghan Negotiations.“ The Palace in Kabul announced their representatives at the ceremony would be the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah; Acting Foreign Minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar; President Ghani’s Special Representative on Peace Affairs, Abdul Salam Rahimi and Peace Minister Sayed Sadat Mansur Naderi. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the opening ceremony as well (his statement is here).

The talks were supposed to start several times since the US-Taleban agreement was signed on 29 February. Six months have passed since the first date was set for 10 March with both the Taleban and the Afghan government accusing each other of delaying the process. The main obstacle was over prisoner release (5,000 Taleban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 prisoners held by the Taleban). The last batch of 400 fighters (deemed especially dangerous by the government) held things up, as did the slow establishment of a central body of the government’s peace architecture, the High Council for National Reconciliation (see a recent AAN analysis here). The first session is expected to be “an icebreaker”, according to sources in Kabul. A contact close to the Taleban in Doha said that they expected the meeting to “set conditions and procedures for the next ones.”

Time to look at a few central questions regarding the process ahead.

Who is sitting at the table?

The government side

The Afghan government has two entities charged with forging peace: a “negotiating team” of 21 members which will largely be at the table, and an unwieldy supervisory structure which is meant to guide the negotiating team, the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR).

  1. The negotiating team

The Afghan government set up its “inclusive” negotiation team consisting of 21 people in March (for details and critical reactions from civil society and Taleban see this earlier despatch; for the full list with some biographical details see footnote (1)). Many members are current and former officials as well as representatives of factions and parties. While there are some senior figures included, there is a notable imbalance in the makeup of the team as compared with the more senior list of the Taleban (elaborated on further below), who even included members of its leadership council into their negotiating team.

The negotiation team is led by Masum Stanekzai, a Ghani stalwart, who also sits on the HCNR. He has significant – and diverse – experience dealing with the Taleban. He previously headed the country’s intelligence service, the National Directory of Security (NDS), and was acting Minister of Defence. However, before leading the fight against the Taleban, he led peace efforts, serving from 2009 as CEO of the (now mostly defunct) High Peace Council. In that role, Stanekzai saw numerous attempts to achieve a breakthrough fail. He was also severely injured when, in 2011, an envoy of the insurgency ignited a bomb reportedly hidden in his turban, killing the head of the council, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani (see AAN reporting here). Stanekzai hails, by the way, from the same tribe as the Taleban deputy chief negotiator, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai. Both are from Logar province.

Others on the team notably include political figures who are close relatives of many of the most powerful politicians and warlords of the country: Matin Bek, son of the assassinated north-eastern Afghan mujahedin commander Mutaleb Bek (also presidential advisor and former head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, IDLG); Bator Dostum, son of Jombesh party leader Abdul Rashid Dostum; and Khaled Nur, son of former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur. Fatema Gailani is the daughter of former mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani (with a prominent role herself as one of the early few women politicians and former head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society). Ghairat Bahir is a member of Hezb-e Islami and son-in-law of leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (AAN was told on 4 September that Bahir and Gailani may not travel to Doha.)

To exclude these political factions would have been to risk derailing the talks with the Jihadis and the Taleban claiming that the negotiators team was not ‘representative’ or heavyweight enough. Another motivation may have been to ‘keep them close’, as some jihadi circles have been known to switch sides. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar already claimed in an interview that “parties” had started their own negotiations, as there was “no consensus between government and political parties on the Afghan peace process.” International observers confirmed that these talks have been ongoing for months.  Whatever the reason, the jihadi factions end up with double the influence on the peace process, with some of the most powerful elders also sitting on (or at least invited to) the HCNR.

Among the negotiators there are only four women – including some outspoken characters known for being very critical of the Taleban, for example Fawzia Kufi, a politician linked to elements of the former ‘Northern Alliance’ and a leading women’s rights activist. She was attacked by unknown men while on the road near Kabul and slightly injured mid-August. Some claimed this happened in order to derail the peace process (though it comes amid a wider trend of increased targeted attacks by the Taleban). The Taleban denied responsibility for the attack. Another attack hit and injured HCNR member, First Vice President and outspoken Taleban critic Amrullah Saleh on 9 September, killing ten civilians. The interior ministry pointed fingers towards the Haqqanis. Again, the Taleban denied responsibility. US Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spoke of “spoilers” trying to disrupt the “historic” peace talks.

  • The High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR)

The HCNR is supposed to oversee the negotiations, and is headed by President Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah, according to the 17 May power sharing agreement. The agreement put Abdullah in charge of the peace process, meaning the negotiating team will report to him and work “under the guidance of the leadership committee” of the HCNR. The decisions of the leadership committee of the HCNR will be based on a majority of votes and will be final and “binding.”

However, the authority of Abdullah and potentially the HCNR already seems to have been watered down in reality. In earlier reporting AAN discussed whether Ghani would be ready to hand over authority over the peace process to his rival Abdullah. The fact that the council, on 29 August, was appointed by presidential decree, rather than by Abdullah, with Ghani inserting allies into key positions, indicates that Ghani has no intention of ceding power over the process. Abdullah was furious, pointing out that this undermined his role to appoint the High Council. There were also objections from other factions, including former President Hamed Karzai and Hekmatyar (full list of appointees and reactions in this recent AAN analysis).

This is possibly why senior figures around Ghani keep trying to undermine the power of the HCNR. A close aid of the president, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, told Afghan media on 31 August that the HCNR was not the decision-maker and that any deal with the insurgency would require the approval of the “people” or a loya jirga (grand assembly – which in turn is organised and steered by the government, see this AAN dossier). Chief negotiator and Ghani ally Masum Stanekzai echoed this in a tweet on 3 September which said the recent Consultative Peace Loya Jirga had provided the “roadmap for direct peace talks.” (See the salient points of the final resolution of the jirga in this despatch). Between the lines, Stanekzai was basically saying there was no real need for the “guidance” of the HCNR.

There is more at stake in these disputes than the usual scramble for positions and power. Many of those at the negotiating table or on the High Council see these formations as potential precursors to an interim government, particularly those who over the past years felt side-lined by the Ghani government. This applies to many of the old jihadi commanders, but also to Abdullah, who has been supporting the idea of an interim government, presumably foreseeing a stronger role within it, even if he’d be sharing power with more factions. But the net result is yet more public discord and a fractured front compared to the Taleban, who look relatively united, at least from the outside.

The Taleban side

Like the Afghan government, the Taleban sent 21 people in their negotiation team, as spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed tweeted on 5 September. Unsurprisingly, all are men. An official full list has not yet been released (spokesman Naim Wardak told AAN this would happen at an “appropriate time”), so some of the membership has been compiled via mentions in official statements (for example here and here) and overlapping versions of the staffing list leaked to journalists and others. (For a list of the confirmed candidates and other likely candidates including some biographical details check footnote (2)).

It seems that overall the selection aims to represent the most powerful families and sub-networks within the movement as well as influential tribes and ethnic groups. The mix also seems well weighted between religious scholars, military commanders and political thinkers. But while the government has dispatched mostly mid-ranking former and current officials to the table, the Taleban are fielding real heavyweights – for example senior commanders and known members of the Leadership Council (‘Quetta Shura’) who were close to the founder of the movement, Mullah Omar.

The head of the delegation is the current Chief Justice of the Taleban, Sheikh Abdul Hakim, a religious scholar and a Kandahari, thus representative of the movement’s main region of influence. Spokesman Mujahed confirmed him as chief negotiator. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former head of the political bureau of the Taleban in Doha, is his deputy.

Other influential members of the group include Mawlawi Abdul Kabir (confirmed), a Taleban official who held a number of previous jobs (for example Governor of Nangarhar province, military commander for the eastern zone and acting Prime Minister). According to AAN research, he is known for his political savviness and management skills. Also on the list is Mullah Shirin (confirmed), a military commander who was once in charge of organising Mullah Omar’s personal security. He has been accused by the Afghan government of being behind the killing of Kandahar’s police chief General Abdul Raziq, who held the Taleban at bay with ruthless methods. Among the representatives of powerful families is Anas Haqqani (reported here and here), brother of current Haqqani clan leader and deputy Taleban chief Serajuddin Haqqani. Anas was in an Afghan jail for five years before he was released in a prisoner swap at the end of 2019.

Also included are some or all of the so called ‘Guantanamo Five’: Taleban officials who were imprisoned by the US in Guantanamo Bay until a prisoner swap in 2014. These are the former Governor of Herat, Khairullah Khairkhwa (confirmed), former Chief of Army Staff Fazl Mazlum (also known as Mullah Fazl), former Northern Zone Commander Nurullah Nuri, and former Deputy Head of Intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq. There is also Abdul Nabi Omari who at the time of his detention did not play an important role, but who has been catapulted into the leadership sphere through his time in US detention. In October 2018, the whole group of former Guantanamo prisoners was appointed to the Taleban’s political bureau in Doha (see media reporting for example here).

Where these influential men stand in terms of reconciliation and reintegration remains foggy as of yet. AAN’s Kate Clark wrote at the time of their release “they may be useful for negotiations or many years in detention may have hardened them to thoughts of compromise.” However, AAN said that Khairkhwa and Nuri were previously “known as moderates within the movement.”

Khairkhwa certainly made some moderate statements in an interview with Al Jazeera on 12 July, in which he said that the Taleban understood very well that taking power by force will never end the conflicts in Afghanistan (Al Jazeera translation from Arabic, minute 8.21), and acknowledged that Afghan society was not the same compared to 2001 (minute 23.09).

In contrast, a recent paper by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Taleban perspectives on peace quotes a recording of Fazl, distributed via audiotape to fighters in Afghanistan, in which he assures them that “the movement would insist on three core demands during negotiations: the Taliban is to choose the leader of Afghanistan’s future government, the future government must be an emirate and it is to be based entirely on Sharia.” However, according to the ICG, Fazl had also been instrumental in “persuading the leadership council to accept the final terms in the agreement with the U.S., including its late-stage insistence that the agreement’s formal signing be preceded by a seven-day “reduction of violence”, a move that triggered great suspicion.”

What Will Be On The Agenda?

Neither side has officially disclosed opening demands, but two main points are likely to come up fast – a ceasefire and state formation.

A. Ceasefire

Abdullah Abdullah has said that the Kabul team’s immediate interest is a ceasefire. The government tried to make it a pre-requisite for talks but the Taleban insisted that it should be a topic and possible outcome of the talks themselves. An “immediate and permanent ceasefire” was also a core demand by the participants of the recent Consultative Peace Loya Jirga. There is a pragmatic reason for this focus, as admitted by one government negotiator who told AAN that it is one of the few topics the divided government representatives can agree on, especially on the HCNR. Even on this one issue, though, different options seem to be on the table for the Kabul team: a country wide ceasefire, a humanitarian ceasefire only, or another broader reduction in violence.

For the Taleban, the battlefield is their primary source of power, so for them a ceasefire is a very different calculation. They may determine that the government urgently needs the pause for its severely strained forces and the political success for its legitimacy, and therefore refuse to agree to an immediate ceasefire, instead using the issue as leverage to secure some goals of their own.

The Taleban would certainly be capable of enforcing a ceasefire if it suited them, as the examples over Eid in 2020 and their first ceasefire in June 2018 have shown. However, such a decision would not be without risks for them. The ICG paper cites Taleban concerns that without the threat of violence they’d lose too much leverage, as well as a fear that a ceasefire might cause the fight to lose momentum, with a Taleban source saying that “it is difficult to warm up the mujahidin after cooling them down”. AAN has previously pointed towards the psychological risks of stopping the fighting. During the 2018 ceasefire Taleban fighters were welcomed exuberantly by many in the population, which also allowedfraternisation between Taleban and pro-government fighters. The government claimed that many Taleban fighters quit the movement on that occasion, which may be why during following ceasefires or reductions in violence, the leadership prevented fighters from visiting urban areas.

Ashley Jackson, Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), who has been observing the group’s recent conduct, finds there might be “more openness” to a ceasefire demand than in the past. “They could very well do that and surprise people,” says Jackson, pointing to the “credibility” the group could win. Strategic wording may help bring this about: the Taleban may not agree to a “ceasefire” as such, as it is the government’s term, but possibly to another “reduction in violence”.

  • State (re)formation 

For the Afghan government, preservation of the current ‘democratic’ system is a priority, along with keeping as much of the current constitution as is possible. The Taleban, though, have said they want an “Islamic” system for years while remaining vague on the details. An international source, who saw 11 or 12 discussion points the group had circulated in Doha before the talks, says the Taleban’s focus seems to remain along these lines for the talks: “Islam was on every line”, the contact said. “Islam and education, Islam and government, that’s how they were framing things. Their vision of an end of the war is to have a very different form of government.”

Another source close to the group claimed that initial demands may include establishing a transitional administration by abolishing both houses of parliament and replacing them by another assembly, as well as modifying the constitution by a comittee consisting of religious leaders and lawyers (this has been reported by media in a similar way, see here).

As far back as 2011, in contacts between Afghan government and Taleban, the Taleban included a demand for the revision of the constitution towards something more Islamic, and changes to the national security and judicial institutions, including the Attorney General’s Office. They also brought up the idea of creating an interim government (hukumat-e mu’aqat). (Their demands at the time also included foreign troop withdrawal and prisoner release, as AAN reported in this analysis.)

In general, Taleban contacts have told AAN that they wanted “reforms” (eslah) of the current government institutions to make them more ‘Islamic’. As AAN has reported, “Taleban representatives have also indicated in various meetings that they largely want changes in the personnel of the security and judicial institutions, but do not want to abolish them – to prevent, they argue, a repetition of events “after the fall of Dr Najib’s regime” when the government’s security forces disintegrated and members joined the various competing mujahedin factions.“ AAN determined from its observations that the Taleban may still be partial to re-establishing an Emirate, but their statements also “recognise the need for some political pragmatism and adaptability. Or at least, they want to pretend that they do.”

The lack of public clarity in the Taleban positions may partly be a negotiation strategy – or indicate a lack of internal consensus. The ICG in its recent analysis comes to the conclusion that the Taleban have “historically avoided the internal debate and risk to cohesion that would come with forging consensus on difficult questions of governance and ideology.“Internally, “the group has left many questions unanswered or permitted maximalist positions to flourish.”

Mixed Messages: Do the Taleban Want Peace?

The Taleban used to be adamant that they would only negotiate with the Americans, dismissing the Kabul government as a stooge. Now that they’ve already secured much of what they wanted from the Americans (withdrawal and prisoner release), it is not clear how committed they are to negotiations with the Afghan government. The ICG writes after talking to an experienced international Taleban interlocutor that the Taleban appear to be equally “poised to pursue political or military tracks as they evaluate adversaries’ actions and their opportunities to achieve their objectives through negotiations.”

The choice of high-level negotiators points to some real interest. Having a religious authority and high-ranking official from leadership circles such as Sheikh Abdul Hakim head the team sends the message that decision will be taken in line with Sharia (see media reporting to that effect also here). This might take the wind out of critics’ sails, since it is possible that there are some factions of the Taleban who remain skeptical about a political solution and some form of power sharing.

However, at the same time the Taleban keep sending mixed messages, resulting in fears among the population and government that the opaque movement may simply be going along with the talks to speed up the continued US withdrawal and then, with the Afghan National Security Forces further weakened and demoralized, take power by force. (US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in August said that troop numbers would be below 5,000 by the end of November – General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, on 9 September even put it at 4,500 by late October).

Mixed messages have come for example from the battlefield. The Taleban did offer a brief ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr in May and adhered to another over Eid al-Adha end of July. They have also ceased their attacks on international forces, as per the agreement with the US, and more or less stuck to a period of reduced violence in the days leading up to the US-Taleban agreement. But shortly after they resumed their fight. In the first half of 2020, they were already responsible for more civilian casualties than in the same time in 2019 (see AAN reporting here). Taleban researcher Ashley Jackson says, “they have expanded their checkpoints in the past six months by a factor of four. That is massive.” It does beg the question, as Jackson goes on, as to “whether this is about increasing leverage at the bargaining table or whether this is about preparing for when talks break down.”

Taleban statements also continue to indicate disregard for the Afghan government – an unfavourable pre-condition for peace talks. On August 15, for example, a Taleban spokesman published a piece on the movement’s al-Emarah website [Arabic for the Emirate], saying that “the Islamic Emirate does not recognise the Kabul administration as a government but views it as [a] western imported structure working for the continuation of American occupation. The piece went on to say that the movement only accepted talks according to the Doha agreement, “and those are intra-Afghan negotiations that cover all parties to the Afghan conflict.” This framing clearly represents a Taleban view that the Afghan government is not speaking for the country but is merely one of many interested parties.

Is the Afghan Government Committed to Talks? 

There are clearly some in the Afghan government who feel they’ve been bullied into these talks by the US, and that they are starting from a point of weakness, with the government’s two main bargaining chips already conceded to the Taleban by the US: Firstly, the presence of US troops – now in the final phase of US troop withdrawal, driven on by President Trump’s hopes that ‘bringing soldiers home from the country’s longest war’ will be a helpful narrative in the November US elections. Secondly, the large number of Taleban fighters in government prisons – almost 5,000 of which have now been released. Given this, there has been speculation that Ghani may hold out hope that the US elections in November remove Trump, and stop the troop withdrawal, giving him a better hand in the talks – or relieving the pressure on him to deal with the Taleban altogether.

To the extent that the factions within the government team are guided by narrow self-interests, the Ghani contingent certainly have disincentives to move towards what seems to be a possible outcome of talks – an interim government, which as mentioned above is something that the president and his supporters vehemently oppose. Cynics would say this is because it would dilute the president’s power. Supporters would say it is because they fear that the reforms and progress of recent years would be threatened in an interim arrangement, or that it would quickly disintegrate into open conflict. Either way, it does mean there are question marks over the degree of commitment from the president’s team.

Conclusion: What Are the Chances That Talks Succeed?

These will be talks between two very wary parties, and there are any number of contentious issues that can halt the process or make either party pull the plug on them altogether. If they don’t collapse quickly, they are likely to be a drawn out affair, with the two parties looking differently at fundamental questions, including how and in whom power should be vested – an emir, or theocracy, versus a ‘democratically’ elected government; what role a constitution should play; which rights citizens such as women or minorities should enjoy, and what the future make-up and leadership of the security forces including the possible integration of Taleban fighters could look like.

Altogether, the glue to this initiative – the US-Taliban agreement from February – is brittle. The Afghan government was excluded from that agreement, feeling forced into some of its key provisions (such as the prisoner release), and neither the Taleban nor the Afghan government much trust the US. By offering the biggest possible incentives to the Taleban – the withdrawal of their troops and prisoner release – the US managed to bring them to a table that for the longest time they did not want to sit at. However, should the withdrawal not be completed as agreed by May 2021, the Taleban might react by pulling away from the agreement.

So far, however, the Taleban have only made significant gains by talking. Afghanistan expert Marvin G. Weinbaum from the Middle East Institute recently observed in a commentary for The National Interest that the Taliban delegates found that by standing firm they could push the Americans to yield on virtually all key points.” The phrase “giving away everything for nothing“ has been making the rounds among Afghan and international diplomats and politicians. This may well have already set the tone for the talks, making the government’s commitment tentative.

Yet another potential spoiler is the disunity and the competing interests among the Kabul delegates. With the Ghani administration dominating the decision-making of the negotiation team and HCNR and causing friction with Abdullah and jihadi circles, the Taleban have an opportunity to drive more wedges into the government team or peel influential members away. This could even leave the government at risk of facing a majority in favour of an interim government. It is likely that the Ghani administration would pull the plug on the talks if they headed in this direction.

The negotiations, which have great symbolic and emotional meaning for the country, will need some quick successes, if they are not to fail fast. But with the two most obvious subjects for discussion quite differently weighted – with the Taleban possibly defensive on ceasefire and the government defensive on state reform – it is not at all clear where an early breakthrough might be found, that might shore up this fragile beginning.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig 


(1) The Kabul or ‘republican’ negotiation team

  • Masum Stanekzai, head of the delegation, a Pashtun from Logar and the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) (affiliated with President Ghani)
  • Fatema Gailani (a woman), daughter of former mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani and a former head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society
  •  Nader Naderi, the head of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (affiliated with Ghani)
  • Abdul Matin Bek, an Uzbek, President Ghani’s senior advisor on political and public affairs, former head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) and son of Abdul Mutaleb Bek, one of the influential jihadi commanders from the north-eastern province of Takhar
  •  Fawzia Kufi (a woman), a Tajik and former MP from Badakhshan (affiliated with Hanif Atmar)
  • Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, former minister of interior (2005 – 2008), minister of counter-narcotics (2009-2013) and minister of foreign affairs (2013-2015). All three ministerships served during Karzai’s presidency. (affiliated with former President Hamed Karzai)
  • Attaullah Ludin, a Pashtun, member of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by acting minister of finance Abdul Haid Arghandiwal and former HPC member (Ludin has replaced Arghandiwal of the same faction). He is also acting head of the Ulema Council.
  • Muhammad Rasul Taleb, Hazara from Ghazni and currently an advisor to Ghani (affiliated with Ghani and his VP Sarwar Danesh)
  • Habiba Sarabi (a woman), a Hazara from Ghazni and former provincial governor and member of the High Peace Council (affiliated with Ghani and his VP Danesh)
  • Ghairat Bahir, a Pashtun, a member of Hezb-e Islami and son-in-law of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
  • Muhammad Hafiz Mansur, a Tajik and a member of Jamiat (affiliated with Abdullah)
  • Ghulam Faruq Majruh, a Tajik, MP from Herat and affiliated with former minister of water Ismail Khan
  • Mawlawi Enayatullah Baligh, a Tajik and member of HPC (affiliated with Abdullah)
  • Batur Dostum, an Uzbek, the eldest son of General Dostum, acting head of Jombesh-e Melli and an MP from Jawzjan
  • Kalimullah Naqibi, a Pashtun and deputy head of Jamiat (affiliated with Abdullah)
  • Muhammad Nateqi, a Hazara from Bamyan and deputy leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom led by Muhammad Mohaqeq (affiliated with Abdullah)
  • Ayub Ansari, a Pashtun, NDS (affiliated with Ghani)
  • Sayed Sa’adat Naderi, Ismaili, son of the Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli leader and former minister of urban development. He has replaced Shahla Farid (affiliated with Abdullah) and has also been appointed peace minister.
  • Sharifa Zurmati (a woman), Pashtun, former MP (affiliated with Ghani)
  • Khaled Nur, the eldest son of former Balkh governor and chief of the executive of Jamiat, Atta Muhammad Nur, and a Tajik (affiliated with Ghani)
  • Muhammad Amin Ahmadi, a Hazara from Khas Uruzgan, the chancellor of private Ibn-e Sina University. He wrote on his Facebook account on 26 March that “it is natural that each of the members of the delegation has been recommended by one political faction and, as far as I have learned, I have been recommended by Ustad [Karim] Khalili, the leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami and the chairman of the High Peace Council as a non-party but, according to him, national individual.”

Altogether, ethnicity-wise there are eight Pashtuns in the team (Stanekzai, Gailani, Nader Naderi, Ludin, Bahir, Zurmati, Ansari, and Naqibi). Four out of eight are affiliated with jihadi factions: the Pashtun dominated factions Hezb-e Islami and Mahaz-e Melli and the Tajik dominated Jamiat faction. Four others are former and current officials or MP who have risen as a result of their roles in the government.

The list also includes six Tajks (Kufi, Moqbel, Mansur, Majruh, Baligh, and Khaled Nur), and two Uzbeks (Batur Dostum and Matin Bek). Four Hazaras (Nateqi, Muhammad, Taleb, Sarabi) mainly represent different Wahdat groups and are affiliated with influential Hazara leaders such as Karim Khalili, Sarwar Danesh, or Muhammad Mohaqeq.  There is one Ismaili on the list, Sayed Sa’adat Naderi.

Some of these negotiators have met Taleban representatives in different formal and informal settings before: Masum Stanekzai, of course at various occasions, but also Fawzia Kufi (in Moscow and Doha), Naderi (in Doha), Muhammad Nateqi (in Murree and also informally), Ghairat Bahir and Habiba Sarabi (Moscow and Doha).

(2) The Taleban’s negotiation team

The Taleban have as of yet not released a full list of their negotiators, but have mentioned some in statements (for example here). Other names were part of lists leaked by members of the group to media (see for example here or here). For the most part, the confirmed and likely members of the negotiation team are prominent Taleban officials and commanders, many of which AAN has already researched in depth in the past (see this report on the Taleban’s political office in Doha here, this on the release of the Guantanamo Five here, or this on the Taleban leadership in transitionhere). On others, local contacts, Taleban sources, and UN sanctions records were consulted. However, due to limited sources and decades of notorious secrecy, many Taleban biographies remain patchy or even contradictory, thus work in progress. In addition, the Taleban may still make changes or additions to previously leaked lists. AAN will in this case update the content.

  • Sheikh Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai leads the Taleban’s negotiation team. He is the supreme judge and according to a UN overview of the Taleban leadership structure from May 2020 on the judicial commission of the political office. According to media reports, he also sits on the leadership council of the Taleban. He is described as close to Taleban chief Haibatullah. He has been confirmed as lead negotiator in official statements.
  • Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekai is a Pashtun from Logar who was head of the Taleban’s political office in Doha between 2015 and 2019 and most recently the chief negotiator for the US-Taleban agreement in February 2020. He was initially expected to be chief negotiator with the Afghan government, but then became deputy to Sheikh Abdul Hakim. His biography is atypical for a Taleb, as AAN has found previously, having been educated at India’s military academy in Dehradun, which in the 1970s was involved in training Afghan army officials.  When the Taleban were in power, Stanekzai served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Deputy Minister of Public Health, and as one of the few leaders who spoke English, he was authorised to entertain foreign visitors and occasionally give interviews in English. He has been confirmed as deputy chief negotiator in official statements.
  • Mullah Shirin is part of the leadership council as well as the political office in Doha. He is an Alizai tribe member from Kandahar who used to be close to Taleban founder Mullah Omar: he was in charge of organising Omar’s personal security, according to Mullah Omar expert Bette Dam.  AAN’s Borhan Osman in 2016 described him as being in charge of the war in 19 provinces. In 2018, a UN Security Council report described him as “the Taliban Head of Intelligence for the Southern Region”. The former director of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil in October 2018 on Twitter accused Shirin of being behind the assassination of Kandahar’s police chief General Raziq. He has been mentioned as member of the negotiation team in official statements.
  • Mawlawi Abdul Kabir is a member of the Taleban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura. In his UN sanctions committee biographic entry, it says he was Second Deputy for Economic Affairs in the Emirate’s Council of Ministers, as well as a former Governor of Nangarhar province, and military commander for the eastern zone. Kabir is Zadran from Baghlan province in the north, with family hailing from Paktia province. AAN’s Borhan Osman in a 2016 analysis described him as being known for his political savviness and smart management skills, who has been critical of the killing of Afghan civilians by Taleban fighters. AAN learned that around 2012 he was relieved of his responsibilities for acting independently of Quetta, but then got back into leadership circles. He has been mentioned as member of the negotiation team in official statements.
  • Sheikh Qasim Turkman is one of the more mysterious appointees to the negotiators’ list. According to media reports (see for example here), he is a member of the movement’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, based in Pakistan. Sources on the ground came up with conflicting and patchy information (so this entry is work in progress and may be amended). There is agreement that he is Turkmen in ethnicity (as his name suggests) and thus one of the few non-Pashtuns in leadership circles, possibly a token appointment in order to show that the Taleban represent all ethnic groups. Beyond that initial accounts differ. He seems to hail from Jawzjan province (some media have him hailing from Kunduz) and received a religious education in Pakistan. According to one source, one of his former students, Sheikh Qasim has lived for more than 30 years in Peshawar, Pakistan. There, he has been running a madrassa for students mostly from the Turkic community. According another source, in 2004 and 2005, when the Taleban were re-grouping, he was in charge of Outreach and Guidance, which among others meant recruiting fighters and doing some messaging. In 2009, he was allegedly put in charge of this task for 20 provinces.
  • Abdul Manan Hotak is the brother of late Taleban founder Mullah Omar and as such part of the Taleban’s leadership circles. A UN leadership overview from May says he is also Commissioner for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaint in the political office in Doha.
  • Mullah Abdul Latif Mansur is a member of the political commission of the Taleban and was in May its Commissioner for Agriculture, Livestock, Ushr and Zakat (taxes), according to a UN Security Council report. A brief bio by the UN sanctions committee says that Mansur was Minister of Agriculture for the Taleban regime. He also was a member of their Supreme Council and Head of the Council’s Political Commission, and is previously recorded as being Shadow Governor of Logar in 2012, and a Ghilzai from either Zurmat or Garda Seray district in Paktia.
  • Mullah Muhammad Ahmadzai or Haji Muhammad Zahed Ahmadzai is a long-time member of the political office in Doha who hails from Logar, according to the UN Sanctions Committee. During the Taleban time, he has worked as third secretary at the group’s embassy in Islamabad. He may have lived in Dubai for a long time as a businessman. More recently, he surfaced in media reports on the meetings between the group and US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad on the US-Taleban agreement.
  • Qari Din Muhammad Hanif (or Hanafi) was the Taleban’s Minister of Planning and later of Higher Education during the Emirate. He is a Tajik from Badakhshan in the north according to UN sanctions records, perhaps another signal of diversity. He was also a member of the Joint Consultative Committee (a forum where UN, NGOs and donors and Taliban government representatives met in Islamabad to discuss aid). More recently, Hanif has attended international meetings on behalf of the Taleban.
  • Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of the Guantanamo Five, is a Popalzai from Arghestan in Kandahar. During the Emirate, he was considered one of the more moderate Taleban in leadership circles. Among others, he was governor of Herat in western Afghanistan. According to UN sanctions records, he also served as their spokesperson, Governor of Kabul province, and Interior Minister. In February 2002, Khairkhwa was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the Americans. According to Anand Gopal in his book, No Friends Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, the arrest was made after Khairkhwa had contacted representatives of Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half-brother (he was friendly with the family). He was looking for a formal amnesty and possibly a post in the new administration and the two sides met in a safe house in Chaman on the Pakistani side of the border where he was arrested. He has been mentioned as one of the members of the negotiation team in official statements.
  • Mullah Muhammad Fazil Mazlum was one of the Guantanamo Five and the Taleban’s Chief of Army Staff during their reign in the 1990s, according to a biography in Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s book An enemy we created. UN sanctions records have him as Deputy Chief of Army Staff and hailing from Uruzgan province, a Kakar by tribe. AAN research found him to be considered one of the most important and feared commanders of the Emirate. He, among others, was responsible for some of the Taleban massacres of civilians (largely Shia, but also Sunni), which took place during the regime’s last years. The main accusation against him is of the industrial-scale destruction of civilian property and associated killings in the (Sunni-populated) Shomali in 1999.  After his release from Guantanamo he and the others of the Guantanamo Five group became members of the political office in Doha.
  • Mullah Nurullah Nuri is also one of the Guantanamo Five and was head of the northern zone and governor of Balkh when he was captured in November 2001. Previously, he also held other provincial governor positions, in Wardak, Laghman and Baghlan, as AAN has reported in the past. He is a Tokhi from Zabul province. War crimes reporting has not linked him to any charges. Along with others, Nuri negotiated the surrender of Taleban fighters in Kunduz in November 2001, expecting the peaceful surrender to be in exchange for safe passage home. Nuri was handed over to US forces and imprisoned in Guantanamo. After his release from Guantanamo he and the others of the Guantanamo Five group became members of the political office in Doha.
  • Mullah Abdul Haq Wasiq is also one of the Guantanamo Five and now a member of the political office in Doha. He was deputy chief of the Taleban intelligence structure until 2001. He is an Andar from Ghazni province, according to UN records born either 1971 or approximately 1975. He was detained in a sting operation in late 2001 in Ghazni, after being tricked by a subordinate who knew that he had travelled to Pakistan to see Rahim Wardak (who became defence minister under President Karzai) to start cooperating with the US.
  • Mullah Muhammad Nabi Omari, too, was one of the Guantanamo Five and was later introduced to the political office in Doha. He has links to the Haqqani network (his brother was a commander in Khost, according to UN records), but during the reign of the Taleban remained a mid-level figure. According to one source, he is from the Ismailkhel-Manozai district of Khost. Some sources and people who knew him then said that he, among other positions, was chief of police in Zabul, later chief of the border police at the Taleban’s ministry of interior.
  • Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar is a member of the political office in Doha. During the Taleban time, he has served as representative in the Peshawar consulate, Ambassador to Pakistan, Chargé d’Affaires in Saudi Arabia, Deputy Chief Justice of the Appeal Court of Kandahar and head of the religious board of the Supreme Court. He also attended the Chantilly conference in December 2012. UN sanctions records have him hailing from Logar.
  • Naim Wardak is the spokesperson of the political office in Doha for the peace talks. He hails from Chak district inWardak province, AAN has found previously. He went to school in Wardak before getting his BA in Islamic Studies (Arabic) in Peshawar. He then enrolled in the International Islamic University in Islamabad for a Masters and subsequently PhD, graduating in 2010. He is also reported to have briefly studied Hadith in the famous Dar ul Ulum Haqqania Madrassa in Akora Khattak. He is fluent in Arabic and also speaks English. He was first noticed at a conference held in Chantilly, France, on 20 and 21 December 2012. Three participants told AAN that it was Naim Wardak who was in charge of the Taleban’s delegation. However, according to one source, Wardak may not be counted as a member of the negotiation team while his predecessor as spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, may still be. This is why we include his biography as well.
  • Suhail Shaheen was as spokesman one of the few public voices and faces of the Taleban political office in Doha, as AAN has reported previously. He is a Totakhel from Paktia, was educated in Pakistan, at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, and is known as a fluent English speaker and prolific writer. He edited the English-language, state-owned Kabul Times during the Emirate, before being appointed to the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan as deputy ambassador. After 2001, sources place him as living in the (Hezb-e Islami controlled) Shamshatu refugee camp in Peshawar where he wrote for a Hezbi newspaper and as having later worked for the United Nations in Pakistan.
  • Anas Haqqani is the brother of Serajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network and deputy Taleban chief. He was reportedly arrested in 2014 and released in November 2019 in exchange for two professors of the American University in Kabul (American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks) held by the Taleban. His role in the insurgency at the time of his arrest was not fully clear. Afghan government officials told media that he contributed by fundraising and was involved in propaganda efforts.
  • Mawlawi Nur Mohammad Saqib is a member of the Quetta Shura and during the Emirate was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to UN records, he hails from Kabul province.
  • Mawlawi Mati ul-Haq Khales is one of the sons of late mujahedin leader Mawlawi Yunos Khales of Hezb-e Islami Khales (who died in 2006). According to a 2013 paper published by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (“Usama bin Laden’s ‘Father Sheikh’: Yunus Khalis and the Return of al-Qa’ida’s Leadership to Afghanistan” by Kevin Bell; in the AAN archive), Khales the elder was in the mid-1990s favourable to the Taleban, though “disagreed with many of the Taliban’s more extreme policies… There is little information about Khalis’s interactions with Mullah Omar, but the scant available evidence indicates that these two were neither friends nor political allies.” Another Khales son, Anwar ul-Haq, had first declared jihad against the Karzai government in 2003 and 2005 and established a subgroup of the Taleban, the Tora Bora Jihadi Front, in Nangrahar province in 2007, which merged with the mainstream Taleban in 2015 (see context here and here and AAN reporting here).
  • Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi is a former Taleban Deputy Minister of Education, currently serving as a deputy head of the political office in Doha. He is from Faryab province and an Uzbek.
  • Mullah Faridullah (or Mullah Fariduddin or Farid ul-Din Mahmud) is to many observers a new face. Well informed Pakistani journalist Tahir Khan says that he hails from Paktia (some media has him, without sourcing, from Paktika), is a religious scholar and close to the Haqqanis. During the Emirate, he served in the judiciary, Khan says.

Other potential negotiators occasionally mentioned in lists could be Mawlawi Abdul Karim (unclear), or Mawlawi Amir Khan Motaqi, a prominent member of the leadership circle and during the Taleban reign previously Minister of Education as well as of Information and Culture, according to UN records.

One source also said that two negotiators (Ahmadzai und Saqib) may not take part in the meetings in Doha, but would “attend talks in other countries”.

Two Parties Too Wary for Peace? Central questions for talks with the Taleban in Doha
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Peace Leadership: Power struggles, division and an incomplete council

Ali Yawar Adili

Afghanistan Analysts Network

 

In absence of the High Council for National Reconciliation designed to supervise the intra-Afghan negotiations, Ghani and Abdullah jointly met the negotiation team on 2 September before its imminent departure for Doha for the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations. Photo: Presidential Palace Facebook, 2 September 2020

The power struggle between President Ghani and Dr Abdullah over appointments to the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) continues to undermine prospects for effective and unified leadership in the peace process on the republic’s side. The 17 May political agreement between the two men, which ended the impasse over September 2019’s disputed presidential election, envisaged a power-sharing cabinet and the establishment of a High Council for National Reconciliation led by Dr Abdullah to supervise the peace process. However, efforts to implement the agreement have been plagued by mistrust and power struggles. These have hampered the formation of the cabinet and the HCNR. While cabinet appointments finally seem to have been completed, Ghani’s recent announcement of the formation of the HCNR seems to be an attempt to exert his control over the council. This has infuriated Abdullah and alienated others. In looking into detail at recent developments and the appointments and what they tell us about political dynamics within the republic, this report is structured as follows:

  • Ghani’s decree on the formation of the HCNR
  • Who is on the Leadership Committee of the HCNR?
  • Reactions to the appointment
  • Recent cabinet appointments
  • Provincial governor appointments
  • Conclusion: A divided republic

Ghani’s decree

On 29 August, Ghani issued decree no 72 approving 46 members of the Leadership Committee of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which is led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah. (For the text of the decree, please see footnote 1.) Their 17 May political agreement envisages two bodies within the HCNR: a Leadership Committee and a General Assembly. The Leadership Committee is politically important as it is supposed to steer the government’s negotiation team, providing “approvals and guidelines” for talks with the Taleban. That 21-member team, announced by the government on 26 March 2020, is led by key Ghani aide, Masum Stanekzai; he is Pashtun from Logar and is the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS). A mix of people drawn from Abdullah, Ghani and a few other camps and of ethnicities and factional backgrounds, the members are mainly male, generally younger than the HCNR members, and largely mid-ranking, with some children of major leaders, such as Batur Dostum (son of Abdul Rashid) and Khaled Nur (son of Atta Muhammad) included (see footnote (3) of this AAN reporting for the list and brief backgrounds).

The decree also calls on the HCNR to finalise members of the council’s General Assembly within an – unrealistic – time period of one week (meaning September 5, already past). Membership is to include religious scholars, members of the parliament, provincial councils and the recently-held Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, representatives of the former High Peace Council, “prominent political and social personalities” and “elected members of the media.” There are no defined authorities for the General Assembly as yet.

Who is on the Leadership Committee?

A full list of the 46 members was published along with the decree. (2) It divided the members into four categories.

  1. “Political and jihadi elders who are members of the High Council for National Reconciliation”

In this category are 19 people, largely older men and a fairly predictable host of figures, given that the 17 May political agreement calls for the Leadership Committee to be made up of “political leaders and national personalities.” The 19 are mostly the senior leaders of the tanzims (political-military organisations), mainly mujahedin, but also PDPA-militias, that fought in the 1980s and 1990s, including against each other in the civil war that followed the fall of the PDPA regime in 1992. Some were also involved in the fight against the Taleban in 1996-2001. These men have maintained considerable influence since 2001 and indeed, along with a few more junior players from the pre-2001 era, can be seen as the main beneficiaries of the current political order established by the Bonn Agreement of late December 2001. They include men from each of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups, and ethnic politics have often played a part in their rise to ­–­ and continuing occupation of – leadership positions in the country. They are:

  • Six Pashtuns: former president Hamed Karzai, jihadi leader and head of Dawat-e Islami Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, leader of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Mahaz-e Melli Sayed Hamed Gailani, leader of Jabha-e Nejat Melli Zabihullah Mujaddedi and deputy leader of Arghandiwal’s Hezb-e Islami faction, Engineer Muhammad Khan;
  • Four Tajiks, all heavyweights from Jamiat-e Islami: former Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of Jamiat, Salahuddin Rabbani, former Vice-President Muhammad Yunus Qanuni, former Minister of Water and Energy Ismail Khan and former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur;
  • Three Hazaras: leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami and former Vice-President Muhammad Karim Khalili, leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-e Mardom and former Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqeq and leader of Ensejam-e Melli and former head of the Karzai’s Administrative Office of the President, Dr Sadeq Mudaber;
  • Three Uzbek leaders: former Vice-President and leader of Jombesh-e Melli Islami Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Minister of Haj and Religious Affairs Enayatullah Shahrani and head of the Federation of Afghanistan Chambers (of Commerce), Muhammad Ismail Ghazanfar (this seems to be a sympathy pick as he is the brother of Muhammad Yusuf Ghazanfar, who died from Covid-19 in early July, after backing Ghani in the 2019 presidential election and being appointed as Ghani’s special representative for economic and business development and poverty reduction);
  • One Ismaili: leader of Paiwand-e Melli Sayed Mansur Naderi (his son, Jaffar led one of the PDPA-era militias).
  • Ulema: the acting head of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan, Attaullah Ludin, who was appointed by the president following the death of its former head Qiyamuddin Qashaf in May 2020 (media report here) and the head of the Ulema Council in the western zone, Mawlawi Khodadad Saleh; both are Pashtuns. Ludin is a member of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by acting Minister of Finance Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal and was also a member of the now defunct High Peace Council. Ludin is also a member of the 21-strong negotiation team. (3)

Apart from Hekmatyar who himself was a candidate in the recent presidential elections, the rest either supported Ghani or Dr Abdullah in the 2019 election or were members of a third informal force around Karzai, who boycotted the election. (4)

  • “High-ranking government members of the council”

Nine people are listed under this category and again, all of them are men. Stacking the committee with all these government officials is against the concept envisaged in the Ghani-Abdullah political agreement which stipulates, “In addition to other members of the Leadership Committee, an authorised representative of the president shall also participate in the leadership [committee]’s meetings as a member.” The members listed under this category are:

  • Ghani’s two vice-presidents, Amrullah Saleh, a Tajik from Jamiat, former head of the NDS, and Sarwar Danesh, a Hazara from Hezb-e Wahdat Islami led by Khalili. Khalili supported Danesh in the 2014 presidential election but the two men have become estranged from each other and Khalili fielded his aide, Saadati, as Abdullah’s second running-mate in 2019 presidential election;
  • Speakers of the House of Representatives, Mir Rahman Rahmani, a Tajik from Parwan, and Senate, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, a Pashtun from Nangrahar;
  • Three presidential advisors: National Security Advisor Hamdullah Moheb, a Pashtun, senior presidential advisor Haji Almas Zahed, a Tajik, Hezb-turned-Jamiat, and senior presidential advisor Mawlawi Jura Taheri, a Pashtun;
  • Foreign minister and former minister of the interior, Hanif Atmar, a Pashtun,
  • The State Minister for Peace. When the list was originally published, this was an unfilled position. Two days later, on 31 August, Sayed Saadat Naderi (an Ismaeli), son of Sayed Mansur, one of the 19 “political and jihadi leaders,” was appointed (he replaced Ghani supporter, Abdul Salam Rahimi).

Of these government officials, the vice-presidents and advisors are all from Ghani’s camp and although Atmar did not support any candidate in the election, he was one of the first figures to side with Ghani amid the election dispute, after which Ghani nominated him as foreign minister. The Senate speaker is a member of Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami party and a close ally to Ghani.

Wolesi Jirga speaker Rahmani, by contrast, was supported  in his election to this post in July 2019 by Abdullah (and also by former Balkh governor and chief executive of Jamiat-e Islami, Atta Muhammad Nur). He was at odd with Ghani on the recent Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, which was convened to decide about the release of the 400 controversial Taleban prisoners. Rahmani had initially opposed the gathering as illegal but then participated following intervention from the United States embassy (see the details in AAN’s reporting here).  Sayed Sa’adat Naderi’s father’s party, Paiwand-e Melli, supported Abdullah in the 2019 presidential elections.

Apart from the Wolesi Jirga speaker and state minister, then, seven out of the nine men in this category are close allies or aides of Ghani.

3. “Prominent women members of the council”

There are eight women listed here:

  • Safia Sediqi, a Pashtun and former MP from Nangrahar, who had roles in both the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga and 2011 Traditional Loya Jirga;
  • Mary Akrami, a Tajik, is the Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Network and founder of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC);
  • Dr Farida Momand, a Pashtun from Nangrahar, is a former Minister of Higher Education, a former professor at Kabul Medical University, and is from President Ghani’s camp. She was the first running-mate  of Ahmad Wali Massud in the 2019 presidential election;
  • Najiba Ayubi, a Tajik from Parwan province, is a veteran journalist and managing director of the Killid Group, a non-profit media network;
  • Zarqa Yaftali is from Badakhshan and is currently the executive director of the Women and Children Legal Research Organisation;
  • Aliye Yilmaz, an Uzbek, is a Commissioner of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC);
  • Nasrin Oryakhel, a Pashtun, was born in Paghman district of Kabul. She was a leading member of Ghani’s election campaign in 2014 and served as Labour and Social Affairs Minister in the National Unity Government;
  • Zia Gul Rezayi, a Hazara from Maidan Wardak, is a lecturer with Al-Mustafa International University, in Kabul (according to a biography sent to AAN). She was an unsuccessful 2018 parliamentary candidate and is close to Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom led by Mohaqeq.

Together with the one female member of the Leadership Board (described below), women make up only 19 per cent of the Leadership Committee of the HCNR. Given that women’s rights are such a sensitive topic in negotiations with the Taleban, a strong presence of women is important, and only partially met by this list.

4. “Leadership Board of the High Council for National Reconciliation.” 

The Ghani-Abdullah political agreement stipulated that the Leadership Board would be a six-person body – Abdullah as chair plus, as deputies, his two running-mates and three others introduced “in consultation with the president.” Ghani has, however, unilaterally expanded the board by adding four more (two deputies and two ‘members,’ there is no apparent difference in the roles of deputies and members). He has therefore ensured it is dominated by his people.

Along with Abdullah as chair of the Leadership Board, are these seven deputies:

Abdullah’s two running-mates, Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, an Uzbek from Faryab and former chief of staff to Marshal Dostum, and Asadullah Sa’adati, a Hazara from Daikundi and close aide to Karim Khalili;

Former State Minister for Peace Abdul Salam Rahimi, a Pashtun from Farah province, and Ghani’s former chief of staff;

Deputy Governor of Paktia Zohra Motahhari, a Pashtun from Paktia;

Leader of Hezb-e Islami-e Nawin (New Islamic Party), Haji Din Muhammad, a Pashtun from Nangrahar, a senior commander with Hezb-e Islami Khales and member of the influential Arsala clan (according to the Ministry of Justice, his party is registered as De Afghanistan De Sole au Permekhtag Islami Gund (Peace and Progress Islamic Party of Afghanistan);

Former presidential advisor and Head of the High Peace Council Secretariat, Muhammad Akram Khpelwak, a Pashtun from Paktia;

Ulema Council member and former deputy of the High Peace Council, Atta ul-Rahman Salim, a Tajik from Panjshir.

The two ‘members’ appointed by Ghani are his chief negotiator Masum Stanekzai and Ghani’s special representative for good governance Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, a Pashtun from Kandahar. He was a powerful PDPA-era ‘governor-general’ of his home city (Parcham wing). Ulumi was an Abdullah ally in the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections and served as Minister of Interior in the National Unity Government. He stood for president in the 2019 election but withdrew, this time in favour of Ghani.

On the same day the list was announced, Ghani appointed Salaam Rahimi as his special representative for peace, thereby making him a member not only of the Leadership Board of the HCNR, but also the cabinet, the National Security Council and the High Commissions and Councils.

Reactions to the appointments

Dr Abdullah Abdullah responded to Ghani’s decree with anger, while three of the heavyweights who topped the 46-strong list rejected their own appointments outright.

Karzai was first to react. He issued a statement a day after the list was published saying he would continue his effort for peace as a “citizen” of the country, but would not take part in any “government structure.” Head of Jamiat, Salahuddin Rabbani issued a statement, two days after  the Palace’s announcement of Leadership Committee, also refusing to cooperate, saying “no consultations” had been made with the leadership of Jamiat on the inclusion of its leader in the list of members of HCNR. (5) Salahuddin Rabbani was one of the main supporters of Abdullah in the 2019 presidential election, but parted ways with him after Abdullah struck a power-sharing deal with Ghani. Rabbani criticised the political agreement and vowed to continue his ‘struggle’ separately.

Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in an interview with Ariana News on 1 September, said he would neither be in the council nor on the negotiation team. He called it a “government council divided between the Palace and the Sapidar Palace [Abdullah’s office as chairman of the HCNR and previously as Chief Executive]”. He said the council’s decisions would not be heeded as the Palace would still take the final decisions. A member of the 21-strong negotiation team told AAN on 4 September that Hekmatyar’s representative on that team, his son-in-law Ghairat Bahir, would not travel to Doha because “the leader does not allow him.” (The member said that another member, Fatema Gailani, would not travel to Doha either due to health reasons. Hekmatyar also accused Dr Abdullah of breaking promises he had made to him and to other political groups in his electoral alliance amid the election dispute that he would not accept Ghani as the elected president. He said he had reneged on this under pressure from the US, repeating the same “John Kerry experience,” (a reference to then Secretary of State Kerry’s political pressure to form the National Unity Government in 2014). Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, had itself put forward a peace plan, proposing that four major political factions should agree on the formation of both a negotiation team and an advisory High Council for Reconciliation. They were Hekmatyar’s own Peace and Islamic Justice; Ashraf Ghani’s State-Builders; Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s Stability and Integration; and a group of “influential personalities” led by former President Karzai.

Perhaps the most serious objection was Dr Abdullah’s. He was silent for two days until 31 August, perhaps because he wanted the Palace to announce the appointment of his cabinet nominees first. Then, a few hours after the Palace’s announcement of the appointments, he issued a statement saying that, based on the 17 May 2020 political agreement, he had the authority to form the council, and there had been no need for a presidential decree.

Abdullah’s statement cites part of section B of the agreement which reads:

The Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation [ie Dr Abdullah] shall form this council in consultation with the president, political sides and leaders, the speakers of the two houses of the National Assembly, civil society and the country’s elites.

As AAN earlier reported, Abdullah had been insistent that the political agreement remain the founding document for the HCNR in order to avoid Ghani controlling the council through presidential decree. Abdullah’s concerns have now been realised.

Abdullah said the composition of the HCNR should be “national, comprehensive and all-inclusive” and that he had started consultations with leaders and different political-civil currents in this respect and was finalising those consultations. Karzai issued a second statement on 1 September announcing his support for Dr Abdullah’s consultation process for selecting members of the council, saying he was confident that such a broad consultation would lead to the formation of an “inclusive and credible national council” whose decisions would be acceptable to all the people of Afghanistan.

It is, however, interesting to note some contradictions between Abdullah’s statement and his remarks. Speaking (see the video here) at an event in Kabul two days before the list was published, on 27 August, Abdullah had said the “list of personalities” for the HCNR Leadership Committee “was finalised” and that it would convene its first meeting with the negotiation team two days later, on 29 August, before the negotiation team members travelled to Doha for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taleban. (He also said with “relative confidence” that the negotiations would begin the following week). The media reported sources close to Abdullah’s office complaining that the list they had submitted had been changed by the presidential palace. Speaking at a press conference on 31 September, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi denied there had been any manipulation of the list, saying the Palace had been in constant consultation with politicians, especially Dr Abdullah, before the decree was issued. Sediqqi said the government was open to considering those who wanted to be members of the council (media report here).

A spokesman for Abdullah told AAN on 1 September that they had been told not to speak to the media about the HCNR after Sediqqi’s statement. Abdullah’s order of silence, the spokesman said, was an attempt to stifle mounting opposition to the Palace. Another source close to Abdullah told AAN that Abdullah planned to add a few other figures close to him to the list and then announce a new ‘final list’ of council members.

A different criticism came from the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Shaharzad Akbar, who tweeted that “[m]ultiple bodies” had been set up for peace but “none of them” were led by a woman. She said that women had “insufficient representation” in both the negotiation team and HCNR which, she said, also lacked “sufficient representation of youth.” She asked “What message does this send about inclusivity as a key principle?”

The Civil Society and Human Rights Network issued a statement calling for the list to be reconsidered, saying it was not “inclusive.” It noted the exclusion not only of young Afghans, but also representatives of war victims, and ethnic and religious minorities. It also said women were only weakly represented.

Representatives of certain minority groups such as Aimaq and Kuchis sent statements to the media complaining about their exclusion from the council (see media report here).

It is unsurprising that the list of 46 excludes young people and has few members of minority groups and women, given that the Ghani-Abdullah political agreement had already referred to the composition of the Leadership Committee as comprising “political leaders and national personalities.” This naturally leads to members of the current elite, who are overwhelmingly male, older and mainly former leaders, commanders or civilian members of mujahedin or PDPA-militia-era factions.

Changing the make-up of the HCNR now will be tricky. Dr Abdullah’s anger may be quelled with a few additional members. Other figures like Hekmatyar and Karzai will be hard to bring in. Hekmatyar has said he opposes the council as he believes it is controlled by the Palace and that Dr Abdullah is unable to defy Ghani’s orders. If Abdullah did control the council, this would hardly be better in the eyes of Hekmatyar or Karzai, both of whom appear disdainful to the idea of working under Abdullah as chair.

Recent cabinet appointments

While the row over the formation of the HCNR was brewing, belated progress had been made in finally forming a cabinet. Perhaps this was an attempt by Ghani to pacify Abdullah for what was bound to be a controversial presidential decree on the HCNR. Even so, at present, Abdullah still does not quite have the 50 per cent of cabinet positions that he is entitled to according to the political agreement.

Two days after the publication of the HCNR Leadership Committee members, on 31 August 2020, the Administrative Office of the President announced that, based on separate decrees by the president, the following nine ministers and one state minister had been appointed:

  • Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj as the acting Minister of Labour and Social Affairs
  • Nesar Ahmad Ghoryani as the acting Minister of Commerce and Industries
  • Qudratullah Zaki as the acting Minister of Transport
  • Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi as acting Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Water Irrigation
  • Masuma Khawari as acting Minister of Telecommunication and Information Technology
  • Mohebullah Samim as acting Minister of Frontiers and Tribal Affairs
  • Fazl Ahmad Manawi as acting Minister of Justice
  • Nur Rahman Akhlaqi as the acting Minister of Refugees and Repatriations
  • Abbas Basir as the acting Minister for Higher Education.
  • Sayed Saadat Mansur Naderi as the State Minister for Peace

Two months previously, Dr Abdullah had submitted a list of 14 nominations (their biographies annexed to AAN’s report here). All of the ten now appointed were on that list, aside from Zaki who replaced Kaneshka Turkistani. Another on Abdullah’s list, Masud Andarabi, had already been appointed by Ghani on 18 July, as the Minister of Interior. The last two nominees on the list are yet to be appointed – Najib Aqa Fahim for the State Ministry for Martyrs and Disabled and Azizullah Ariafar for the Independent Commission for Administrative Reform and Civil Service.

Also among the initial recommendations was Abdullah’s nephew Mustafa Mastur. He has been Minister of Economy appointed in December 2017 during the National Unity Government, but Abdullah had wanted him to be the State Minister for Peace – a role which includes being head of the secretariat for the HCNR. By proposing Mastur, Abdullah intended to ensure his control of the State Ministry for Peace and the executive arm of the HCNR. However, Ghani did not approve Mastur, apparently because he did not want Abdullah to control the structural framework for negotiations. The man he eventually appointed, Saadat Naderi, seems to be a compromise pick. Saadat Naderi served as Minister of Urban Development from March 2015 until his resignation in June 2018 and, given his father’s support for Abdullah in the 2019 election, should be in Abdullah’s camp. However, Saadat’s father had supported Ghani in 2014 presidential election and was appointed as the Minister of Urban Development from Ghani’s camp under the National Unity Government. The possibility that he will be co-opted by Ghani again cannot be ruled out. Saadat Naderi was officially ‘introduced’ mainly by Ghani’s aides, including National Security Advisor Moheb, on 3 September (it is a common practice that newly-appointed officials are introduced officially. Abdullah’s other appointed nominees are expected to be officially introduced in coming days).

Mastur was Minister of the Economy during the National Unity Government, and according to Abdullah spokesman Faraidun Khazun on 1 September, does not need to be “reappointed,” ie introduced to and confirmed by parliament. However, a source from the Administrative Office of the President, who did not want to be named, told AAN on 5 September that if Mastur was to remain in his position, he did have to be re-appointed. The source said the situation was the same for another incumbent, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development Karimi.

With these new appointments and two earlier ones from Ghani’s camp (Qasem Halimi as the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs and Mujib Rahman Karimi as Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, see the announcements in footnote (6)), there seems now to be a complete cabinet list with the exception of questions about the fate of Mastur and of the Minister for Public Works. (On 16 June 2020, Ghani appointed, through a decree seen by AAN) the general director of Afghanistan Railway Authority Muhammad Yama Shams as acting minister until the “introduction of new minister”). It is important to note that article 71 of the constitution defers the number of the ministers and their duties to a separate law yet to be enacted. Therefore, the number of ministries has changed, as ministries have been merged or dissolved, rendering it hard to keep track of the total number. For instance, on 27 January 2019, Ghani issued  a decree to merge the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics with the Ministry of Interior. On 19 February 2020, Ghani issued decree number 36 splitting the Ministry of Water and Energy into two separate independent authorities: the National Water Affairs Regulation Authority and the Authority for the Regulation of Energy Services (see the background on the website of National Water Affairs Regulation Authority here). If the number of cabinet positions is 23, then with the recent appointments, Abdullah has 11 ministers and one state minister, almost but not quite 50 per cent. (7)

It has taken Ghani five months to get this far with forming his cabinet, starting with his appointment of Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal as Minister of Finance on March 31. All the nominees now need to be approved by the Wolesi Jirga which is returning from its summer recess on 6 September. A consolidated table of all the ministers appointed since Ghani’s inauguration on 9 March can be seen in footnote 6.

Provincial governors

The political agreement stipulates that provincial governors will be introduced based on a rule to be agreed upon by the two sides. Yet the president had already appointed 16 governors between 3 April and now (before and after the political agreement being signed on 17 May). Apart from Daikundi governor, who is affiliated with Dr Abdullah’s electoral ally Muhammad Mohaqeq, all the others are from Ghani’s camp. As AAN reported, by 4 August, 14 out of 34 governors had been appointed (see table in AAN’s previous reporting here and table 2 here). Since then, there have been a few new appointments and shifts.

  • On 17 August, the IDLG announced that, based on its recommendation and order number 1200 of the president, Turan General (Brigadier General) Juma Gul Hemmat had been appointed as governor of Badghis. . Hemmat was supposed to travel to Badghis on 20 August, but protestors there, including MPs and the deputy governor refused to allow him to travel to the province by blocking the airport of Qala-ye Naw, the provincial capital. Junaidullah Ashkani, a civil society activist in Badghis, said the IDLG head had promised Badghis MPs in a meeting in Kabul that they would not introduce a new governor without consultation and coordination with the elders of Badghis, but when MPs went on their summer recess, the new governor was introduced (see media report here). A few days later, on 24 August, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Tariq Arian, tweeted that Juma Gul Hemmat had been introduced as the new chief of Kabul police. A day before, on 23 August, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Moheb and IDLG chief Shamim Khan Katawazi held a videoconference with Badghis MPs, provincial council members, the provincial head of the Ulema Council, women and security officials to discuss their demands. However, a new governor has yet to be appointed.
  • On 23 August, the IDLG announced that Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel had been appointed as the governor of Nangrahar. He was the controversial head of the Independent Election Commission in 2014, who was accused of rigging votes for Ghani.
  • On 24 August, the IDLG announced that Muhammad Omar Sherzad had been appointed as governor of Uruzgan.  Sherzad previously served as the governor of Farah, but was dismissed, along a number of high-ranking provincial officials, based on decree 573 dated 28/10/1393 (18 January 2015), and introduced to the Attorney General’s Office on a charge of embezzlement (media report here). It is not clear if the investigation was carried out or if he was convicted or acquitted.
  • On 27 August, the IDLG announced the appointment of Taj Muhammad Jahed as the new governor of Farah. He had been appointed as the governor of Baghlan less than two months before, on 6 July. He is a former minister of interior. He is also the cousin of the late Jamiat commander and former vice president, Marshal Qasim Fahim.

Conclusion: A divided republic

Ghani has tried to circumscribe Dr Abdullah’s powers accorded to him by the 17 May political agreement as much as possible. He expanded the Leadership Board of the HCNR to a ten-member board, which was originally designed to comprise only Dr Abdullah and five deputies, and appointed his close aides to it. Two of these, Salam Rahimi and Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, have been appointed his special representatives and are also members of other decision-making bodies –the cabinet, National Security Council and various councils that Ghani has created since he took power in 2014. Ghani has also appointed his chief negotiator with the Taleban, Masum Stanekzai, to the Leadership Board. These men, by virtue of their other roles, are all likely to wield more influence.

The 17 May political agreement explicitly put Abdullah in charge of the peace process. In an earlier report here, we had already asked whether Abdullah’s new position at the top of the High Council for National Reconciliation was a genuine concession from the president, and whether he would actually hand authority over the peace process to Abdullah. The list of HCNR members published by the Palace shows that Ghani has not ceded control. Its publication, at a critical point just as intra-Afghan talks were about to start, also caused confusion. It highlighted the division and disunity within the Republic, in contrast to the Taleban’s apparently united front.

The other body of the High Council for National Reconciliation, the General Assembly, has yet to be formed. The political agreement defers the authorities and duties of both the Leadership Committee and the General Assembly to internal procedures to be developed by the council. Given that, according to the political agreement, it is the HCNR which is the key body; the negotiation team should serve under the guidance of the Leadership Committee and act in accordance with its approvals and guidelines. However, the Palace has worked to dilute that power and the Leadership Committee’s independence by appointing key government officials, as well as other figures close to the government.

The HCNR should have brought together the various factions. However, the formation of the Leadership Committee has turned into yet another divisive battle for positions. At the same time, it has sidelined women, young people, religious minorities and victims of the war. It has accommodated most of the jihadi and political leaders, whether they supported Ghani, or Dr Abdullah, or former president Karzai or Hekmatyar. By packing the committee with Ghani aides and allies, the Palace also appeared to be trying to dilute the influence of heavyweight members like Karzai. His response – to disown the body – has only weakened its standing.

All these struggles seem to be driven by a fixation with the end state of intra-Afghan negotiations and the possibility that they could lead to an interim power-sharing arrangement. The various political factions are trying to ensure they will have their share by maximising their representation in the structural framework for the peace efforts.

This factional competition over the control of the peace process (and possibly its end state) undermines the prospects of a unified government side to deal with the Taleban – and has made the Taleban look united in contrast. While this competition might be in the nature of the politics of a republic, it risks enhancing the clout of the Taleban in talks.

The size of the Leadership Committee makes it anyway unwieldy as a decision-making body aimed at steering the government’s negotiation team, by providing “approvals and guidelines” for their talks with the Taleban. The appointments appear rather to be aimed at including those who cannot be excluded – the ‘big beasts’ of Afghanistan’s political jungle, while trying to also pack it with enough Ghani supporters to give him control, and with a nod to women. It looks less like a body aimed at helping to make the government negotiation team effective than a reflection of Afghanistan’s factional and political struggles.


Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark

(1) AAN’s working translation of Decree, no 72, approving 46 members of the Leadership Committee of the High Council for National Reconciliation decree, from the original Pashto.

Decree of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan regarding the formation of the High Council for National Reconciliation

                                                                                                               Number: 72

                                                                               Date: 8/7/1399 (29 August 2020)

Decree

Considering the sublime values of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, for the purpose of building national consensus for countrywide peace and to respect the consultations of the two consultative peace Loya Jirgas, based on the country’s political system as republic, in order to advance the peace process, and based on paragraph 13 of article 64 of the constitution and considering the political agreement which was signed on 17 April 2020, I approve the establishment of the High Council for National Reconciliation led by the country’s political and national personality, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The list of the members of its leadership and political committee is attached to this decree.

The High Council for National Reconciliation has a duty to prepare and finalise the list of members of the council’s General Assembly within one week, with the participation of the religious scholars, members of the national assembly, members of provincial councils, the private sector, members of the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga, representatives of the former High Peace Council, prominent political and social personalities and elected members of the media.

I ask God Almighty for the further success of the leadership and members of the council.

Muhammad Ashraf Ghani

President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

(2) The list of members of the HCNR Leadership Council in English (AAN’s working translation). The list is in the original order and with descriptions of the members, as published by the Palace (Any clarifications or additional information from AAN is in square brackets []):

Introduction of Members of Leadership Committee of the High Council for National Reconciliation
Political and jihadi leaders who are members of the High Council for Reconciliation
1 Hamed Karzai Former President Member 1
2 Ustad Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf Jihadi leader Member 2
3 Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Jihadi leader Member 3
4 Ustad Abdul Karim Khalili Former Vice-President and leader of party Member 4
5 Ustad Muhammad Mohaqeq Head of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami [Mardom] Member 5
6 Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum Leader of Jombesh-e Melli Ismali Member 6
7 Muhammad Yunus Qanuni Former Vice-president Member 7
8 Salahuddin Rabbani Leader of Jamiat-e Islami Member 8
9 Muhammad Ismail Khan Jihadi personality and former cabinet minister Member 9
10 Atta Muhammad Nur Member of leadership of Jamiat and former governor Member 10
11 Sayed Hamed Gailani Successor of leader of Mahaz-e Melli Member 11
12 Zabihullah Mujaddedi Head of Jabha-e Nejat and Jihadi personality Member
13 Sayed Mansur Naderi Religious and political personality Member 13
14 Enayatullah Shahrani Political figure and religious scholar Member 14
15 Engineer Muhammad Khan Political figure and deputy of party [Hezb-e Islami] Member 15
16 Head of Ulema Council of Afghanistan Head of Ulema Council of Afghanistan Member 16
17 Dr Sadeq Mudaber Leader of party and former head of administrative office of the president Member 17
18 Muhammad Ismail Ghazanfar General director of Federation of Afghanistan Chambers Member 18
19 Mawlawi Khodadad Saleh Head of Ulema Council of Western Zone Member 19
High-ranking government members of the Council
1 Amrullah Saleh First Vice-President Member 20
2 Ustad Sarwar Danesh Second Vice-President Member 21
3 Muhammad Hanif Atmar Foreign Minister Member 22
4 Hamdullah Moheb National Security Advisor Member 23
5 Fazl Hadi Muslimyar Chairman of Meshrano Jirga Member 24
6 Mir Rahman Rahmani Speaker of Wolesi Jirga Member 25
7 Haji Almas Zahed Senior presidential advisor Member 26
8 State Minister for Peace State Minister for Peace Member 27
9 Mawlawi Jura Taheri Senior presidential advisor Member 28
Prominent women members of the Council
1 Safia Sediqi Civil activist and former MP Member 29
2 Najiba Ayubi Former MP [Journalist and Managing Director of The Killid Group] Member 30
3 Mary Akrami [Executive Director], Afghanistan Women’s Network Member 31
4 Zia Gul Rezayi Civil society activist Member 32
5 Aliye Yilmaz Commissioner of Administrative Reform Commission, Turktabar [Turkic] Member 33
6 Farida Momand Former Minister of High Education Member 34
7 Nasrin Oryakhel Head of Medical Council of Afghanistan Member 35
8 Zarqa Yaftali Civil society activist, WCLRF Member 36
Leadership Board of the High Council for National Reconciliation
1 Dr Abdullah Abdullah Chairman of the Council for National Reconciliation Chairman 37
2 Abdul Salam Rahimi Deputy chairman of HCNR Deputy 38
3 Enayatullah Farahmand Deputy of the Council for National Reconciliation Deputy 39
4 Asadullah Sadati Deputy of the Council for National Reconciliation Deputy 40
5 Engineer Zohra Motahhari Deputy Governor of Paktia Deputy 41
6 Atta ul Rahman Salim Member of Ulema Council of Afghanistan Deputy 42
7 Haji Din Muhammad Leader of Hezb-e Islami Nawin Deputy 43
8 Muhammad Akram Khpelwak Political figure Deputy 44
9 Muhammad Masum Stanekzai Head of negotiation team of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Leadership member 45
10 Nur ul Haq Ulumi Special representative of the president Leadership member 46

(3) Ulema Council spokesman Sa’id ul-Rahman Ehsas told AAN on 5 September that the Ulema Council’s acting head still had to be confirmed by about 120 members of the council and that usually the acting head is confirmed.

(4) During the 2019 presidential elections, the 19 “political and jihadi elders” took the following sides:

  • Ghani’s electoral supporters: Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Zabihullah Mujaddedi, Muhammad Khan, Atta Muhammad Nur, Sadeq Mudaber, Ismail Ghazanfar, Mawlawi Khodadad Saleh.
  • Dr Abdullah’s electoral supporters:  Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, Karim Khalili, Muhammad Mohaqeq, Salahuddin Rabbani, Sayed Saadat Naderi;
  • Karzai supporters: Yunus Qanuni, Ismail Khan, Hamed Gailani

(5) There are currently two Jamiat factions, after a (not yet formal) split in July 2020 (see media report here).

(6) On 6 August, the Administrative Office of the President (AOP) announced that Ghani had nominated Qasem Hamili as the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs. Then on 17 August, the AOP announced that Ghani had nominated Mujib Rahman Karimi as Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and that his nomination would soon be referred to the Wolesi Jirga by the State Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs.

(7) AAN asked both the presidential spokesperson’s office and the Administrative Office of the President for an updated list of the ministries but was not given one. AAN’s own count shows 23 ministers plus the head of the NDS and governor of the Central Bank who both also need to be confirmed by the Wolesi Jirga. Below is a consolidated list of these figures. AAN cannot confirm that Mastur will remain in his position and there is also no update about the Minister for Public Works.

Table 1: New ministerial nominations
No Name Ministry Date of appointment Ethnicity Parliamentary confirmation needed?
Ghani’s nominees
1 Abdul Hadi Arghandehwal Ministry of Finance 31 March 2020 Pashtun Yes
2 Ahmad Zia Seraj NDS 1 April 2020 Tajik Yes
3 Muhammad Hanif Atmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs 4 April 2020 Pashtun Yes
4 Ahmad Jawad Osmani Ministry of Public Health 31 May 2020 Tajik Yes
5 Mahmud Karzai Ministry of Urban Development and Land 1 June 2020 Pashtun Yes
6 Ajmal Ahmadi Da Afghanistan Bank 2 June 2020 Tajik Yes
7 Hasina Safi Ministry of Women’s Affairs 6 June Pashtun Yes
8 Taher Zuhair Ministry of Information and Culture 7 June 2020 Hazara Yes
9 Rangina Hamidi Ministry of Education 10 June 2020 Pashtun Yes
10 Harun Chakhansuri Ministry of Mines and Petroleum 11 June 2020 Pashtun Yes
11 Asadullah Khaled Ministry of Defence 18 July 2020 Pashtun Yes
12 Muhammad Qasem Halimi Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs 6 August 2020 Pashtun Yes
13 Mujib Rahman Karimi Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development 17 August 2020 Pashtun Yes
14 Muhammad Yama Shams Ministry of Public Work 16 June 2020 Pashtun He is acting minister and has not been nominated for the ministry
Abdullah’s nominees
15 Massud Andrabi Ministry of Interior 18 July 2020 Tajik Yes
16 Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs 31 August 2020 Uzbek Yes
17 Nesar Ahmad Ghoryani Ministry of Commerce and Industries 31 August 2020 Tajik Yes
18 Qudratullah Zaki Ministry of Transport 31 August 2020 Uzbek Yes
19 Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi Ministry of Agriculture, livestock and Water Irrigation 31 August 2020 Pashtun Yes
20 Masuma Khawari Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology 31 August 2020 Hazara Yes
21 Mohebullah Samim Ministry of Frontiers and Tribal Affairs 31 August 2020 Pashtun Yes
22 Fazl Ahmad Manawi Ministry of Justice 31 August 2020 Tajik Yes
23 Nur Rahman Akhlaqi Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations 31 August Tajik Yes
24 Abbas Basir Ministry of Higher Education 31 August 2020 Hazara Yes
25 Mustafa Mastur Ministry of Economy Tajik Not clear

Annex: Below is short biographical information about the three newly-appointed ministers, plus the State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, who were been covered in our previous reports. Other biographies of other ministers can be found here and here)

  • Mujib Rahman Karimi for Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development

Karimi was born in Khost province in 1356 (1977). He holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Kabul University (2001) and a master’s degree in regional planning and rural development from the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand (2014). He has served as Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development since 1396 (2017). Prior to that, he served as field worker and coordinator for UNAMA (2007-2012) and trainer and capacity-building manager with National Solidarity Programme of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (2003-07).

Karimi also served as lecturer and head of the agricultural economy department of Sheikh Zayed University, Khost (2003-2015)  and chancellor of the same university (2015-17). (His biography in English here and Dari)

  • Muhammad Qasem Halimi for Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs

Halimi was born in Kharwar district of Logar province in 1352 (1973). He holds a bachelor’s degree in sharia and law from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and his studies for a master’s degree from Al Azhar University are ongoing. He has served as deputy director of the Department of Studies and Scrutiny in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, head of the regional office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Balkh; deputy director of the Protocol Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; General Director of the Judicial Inspection Department of the Supreme Court; general director of Internal Audit; general director of administration and finance of the Supreme Court; lecturer of judicial internship/judicial stage course; senior advisor to the Ministry of Education; political advisor to the High Peace Council; legal consultant to the Asia Foundation; member and spokesman of the Ulema Council; head of the Eslah-e Qaba Foundation and; head of religious affairs of the Office of National Security Council. He speaks Pashto, Dari, Arabic and English. (His biography in Dari here) and English here) He was appointed minister on 7 August 2017 (see here)

  • Qudratullah Zaki for Ministry of Transport

Zaki was born in Bangi district of Takhar province in 1979. He graduated from Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani High School in Peshawar in 1374 (1995) and holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Istanbul University (1383/2004). He has worked as general director for oil and gas in Takhar, news editor of Payam-e Jamhoriyat Weekly and head of the Cultural and Social Foundation of Shahid Zaki (see here and here)

  • State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Gul Pacha Majidi 

Majidi, son of Haji Zargul, was born in 1345 (1966) in Jaji district of Paktia. He supported Ghani in both the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. He holds a baccalaureate and has been a businessman, serving as head of southern zone of Sazman-e Majma-ye Melli (a regional social organisation) and a member of the executive board of Mahaz-e Melli. He served as MP for two terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2019). He is married and has a daughter and two sons (according to his short biography on the Wolesi Jirga website, in Dari here and English here).

 

Peace Leadership: Power struggles, division and an incomplete council
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Afghanistan’s future: the core issues at stake as Taliban sits down to negotiate ending 19-year war

September 7, 2020 

Two Taliban stand in front of a poster of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani
Paving way for talks: Taliban members stand in front of a poster of President Ashraf Ghani after their release from prison in May 2020. Jalil Rezayee/EPA

The long-delayed talks come after an agreement in February between the US and the Taliban, which included a conditional US troop withdrawal within 14 months, a controversial prisoner swap and the Taliban’s promise to cut ties with al-Qaida.

The hope is that a political settlement could help reduce the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists once the US withdraws its troops. But the peace talks, known as the intra-Afghan negotiations, have a rocky road to success. Apart from fundamental differences on the type of post-peace government and women’s rights, the challenge will be whether any agreement on a lasting ceasefire can be reached until political progress is made.

Lasting ceasefire

According to the UN, the 19-year war has taken at least 35,000 civilian lives with the majority of casualties inflicted by anti-government groups, mainly the Taliban.

UNAMA, February 2020

After a series of three-day ceasefires during Muslim festivals in 2020, the warring parties have expressed willingness to negotiate a lasting ceasefire during the new talks, but disagreements remain on the timing and sequencing of it. Unlike the Afghan government, human rights bodies and the EU, who all put humanitarian imperatives first, the Taliban’s view is that a ceasefire can be negotiated only after a political agreement.

Governments usually advocate for an early ceasefire in order to minimise the number of concessions they are required to make in negotiations. But armed groups are often opposed, arguing an early ceasefire can favour the status quo and government.

Some ceasefires, such as in Aceh, Indonesia in 2005, have been successfully agreed at the beginning of negotiations. But there are some examples, such as in El Salvador in the early 1990s, where a ceasefire was only negotiated after progress had been made on the political front.

Building destroyed by suicide bomb in Afghanistan.
Destruction left by a Taliban suicide bomb which killed at least four people on August 25 in Balkh. Mutalib Sultani/EPA

A post-peace government

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, formed after the toppling of the Taliban Islamic Emirate in 2001, starts by calling Afghanistan “an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible”.

It’s likely the negotiators will agree on all these broad principles – except the idea of Afghanistan as a republic. That’s because the Taliban still presents itself as an Islamic emirate forced into exile by the US invasion.

The Afghan republic derives its legitimacy from a popular mandate, rather than the divine right vested in the Taliban’s Islamic emirate. The head of state and members of parliament are now elected, albeit with allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice.

After capturing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban formed a two-track governance system, made up of a political military leadership council and an executive bureau aiming to transfer its leadership system into state structures. But the group never succeeded in forming a functional state.

In 2020, little is known about the specifics of what the Taliban wants the future Afghan state to look like. However, the group does appear to want an inclusive, Islamic political system in which sharia laws are enforced – possibly akin to the theocratic government in Iran.

To ensure effectiveness and stability, any agreement on the structure of a post-peace government should make clear the role of the state institutions which have been set up since 2001. And it must also reflect the underlying configuration of power in Afghanistan, which is predominantly based on consensus among elites than domination by one group over the rest.

Rights and justice

The Taliban claims to want to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women “granted by Islam” are protected. When Taliban leaders were asked whether women should be allowed to go outside alone, according to Human Rights Watch, they said women would only be permitted to travel a short distance without a male companion. Such a restriction would be among the the world’s strictest interpretations of sharia law – comparable to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system.

The question is whether Taliban negotiators will be willing to acknowledge that there are multiple interpretations of sharia, as well as embrace the post-2001 realities of Afghanistan, which have changed significantly since the group was last in power.

The fact that all sides are now sitting down at the negotiating table doesn’t necessarily mean they all believe a mutually acceptable political settlement is feasible. It can be tactical, a way to show progress.

The success of peace negotiations depends partly on whether the parties involved now conclude they can no longer sustain the recent levels of violence. But it also depends on them changing their perception of the conflict as a zero-sum game – one in which what one side gains, the other loses.

While all parties express their willingness to end the prolonged war, there are doubts whether the peace efforts could have got this far without US pressure for intra-Afghan negotiations to begin. But the US involvement – and Trump’s apparent push to get a deal before the US election in November – could mean a peace agreement ends up being imposed on Afghanistan that is likely to fail, for example due to reluctance of the post-peace government to implement it.

The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, recently said that “Afghan society doesn’t have a deadline”. Given the frighteningly massive human cost of the war, these peace efforts must be given a genuine chance – along with the necessary time and space to succeed.

Afghanistan’s future: the core issues at stake as Taliban sits down to negotiate ending 19-year war
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Taliban refuses to negotiate with ‘Kabul administration’ it does not recognize as legitimate

Long War Journal

Even after the Afghan government released nearly 5,000 Taliban prisoners to grease the skids ahead of negotiations with the jihadist group, the Taliban explicitly stated that it will not conduct talks directly with the Afghan government because it “does not recognize the Kabul administration as a government.”

In a statement released on Voice of Jihad on Aug. 15, 2020, the Taliban slammed the Afghan government, saying government’s claim that it would lead negotiations is “against established facts.” Indeed, those facts have already been well established.

From Voice of Jihad:

For the past few days, officials of the Kabul administration have been taking a stance against established facts regarding launch of intra-Afghan negotiations and prisoners of the Islamic Emirate.

Two days earlier, an advisor to Kabul administration’s Arg stated that ‘intra-Afghan’ term ascribed to the negotiation process was incorrect and that talks were going to be held between the Kabul administration and Taliban along with other such remarks.

The Islamic Emirate does not recognize the Kabul administration as a government but views it as western imported structure working for the continuation of American occupation.

We only accept and have made preparations for negotiations that were described in the historic Doha agreement and those are intra-Afghan negotiations that cover all parties to the Afghan conflict.

Reaction by spokesman of Islamic Emirate to allegations by Kabul officials about prisoners and negotiations,
Voice of Jihad, Aug. 15, 2020 [PDF]

The Taliban is correct. The agreement between the United States and the Taliban does not call for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This is because the Taliban has long insisted that the Afghan government is merely a “puppet” and “stooge” of the West. This is a position it has held since the Afghan government was formed in early 2004, one now being reiterated in the Aug. 15 statement.

Instead, the three and a half-page agreement states that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides on March 10, 2020 … [emphasis ours].”

Nowhere in the agreement does it say that the Taliban will negotiate with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan, or any other name used to describe the Afghan government. The agreement only calls for “intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides.”

Note that “sides” is plural. This is because the term “intra-Afghan negotiations” refers to talks with all elements of Afghan society: civil, religious, etc. The Afghan government can only send representatives to the “intra-Afghan negotiations,” but the Afghan government cannot lead the talks, nor can it be directly represented.

Led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban that ensured the Afghan government could not conduct direct talks with the Taliban.

Instead, at best, the Afghan government can only be a party to the deal. It can be one of many “sides” that are tasked with negotiating with the Taliban.

The Taliban insisted from the beginning that the Afghan government was not legitimate, and therefore it would not negotiate with it. This is why the negotiations leading up to the U.S.-Taliban deal, which is routinely described as a “peace deal” but is really a withdrawal deal, excluded the Afghan government.

The Taliban refused to allow the Afghan government to be a party to the talks, and the U.S. made agreements with the Taliban without consulting the Afghan government (such as the lopsided and ill-advised prisoner exchange). This, in turn, legitimized the Taliban’s stance that the Afghan government is subservient to the United States. And the Afghan government reinforced this perception by agreeing to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for just 1,000 of its own men.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

Taliban refuses to negotiate with ‘Kabul administration’ it does not recognize as legitimate
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