The intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha are stalling since the first round ended in December 2020 with an agreement on the talks’ rules of procedure and both parties forwarding their lists of items for an agenda for the next rounds. In order to find out where there are possible ways out of the current political stalemate, we put the following questions to the head of AAN’s Advisory Board, Francesc Vendrell, former Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General and EU Special Representative to Afghanistan, also drawing on his experience from earlier peace processes in Central America and East Timor he has been involved in. He doubts that both parties share a common long-term goal or consider the current situation a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’.Photo:
Gustavo Montes de Oca (Flickr CC BY 2.0).
The intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha are not officially called ‘peace talks’. What’s the significance of this? Also, should there be a power-sharing agreement or a peace agreement first?
First of all, we should not ascribe too much importance to the title of the talks, but rather to their content. Many people tend to refer to the Bonn Conference and its conclusions in December 2001 as a peace agreement. It was nothing of the sort. Its participants were not in armed conflict with each other. Bonn was an urgent political meeting designed to establish a road map to bring about some kind of normalisation to Afghanistan. A real ‘peace’ conference would have required the presence of the Taleban, who were not invited, as the United States and many other governments considered that they had been defeated.
Secondly, I doubt that you could have a power-sharing agreement, assuming the Taleban wanted one, without some kind of ceasefire, armistice or political settlement.
For talks to move seriously forward, it is often helpful for there to be what’s called a mutually hurting stalemate – which means that neither side considers continuing war to be in its interests. Though in the eyes of many observers such a stalemate has been reached, I doubt this is the perception of either of the Afghan parties. This could change, however. For now, the Taleban believe they can wait out the withdrawal of all US forces if it takes place by May as currently scheduled. Should the Biden administration reconsider its options, it could decide, for example, that the Taleban have not lived up to their obligation to “prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” and so the US obligation to withdraw its final troops in May is negated. At that point, it might be the Afghan government that believes it no longer faces a stalemate.
What is your experience about this from peace processes you have been involved in?
In the civil war in El Salvador (1980-92) where I was the deputy United Nations mediator, it took a long time for the two sides to conclude that they had reached a stalemate. It was only when two things happened almost simultaneously, that this realisation came. The FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional/Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation) insurgents failed in November 1989 to provoke an insurrection in San Salvador (unlike the successful one by the Sandinistas in neighbouring Nicaragua in 1979), while the government’s atrocities alienated the US, which suspended its military assistance, following the assassination of six Jesuits working in the Central American University in late 1989. In addition, the end of the cold war meant that neither the Soviet Union nor the US any longer regarded Central America as a pivotal issue and Cuba, under Soviet pressure, was not in a position to continue armed supplies to the insurgents. The FMLN was not strong enough to take over, while the government was weakened by waning US support.
A framework agreement was signed in April 1990 and the agenda agreed shortly afterwards. A ceasefire was included in it, but while the government wanted to prioritise this item, it took over a year for discussions on a ceasefire to start, since the FMLN wanted concessions by the government on their political demands. When some of these concessions – constitutional, judicial and police reform – were agreed, the FMLN agreed to begin examining how a ceasefire might be held and how it would be monitored.
Take also the conflict In East Timor following the Indonesian invasion of what was then a Portuguese Non-Self-Governing Territory, in December 1975. The UN began its mediation or good offices in 1982. For a long time, the balance of forces both diplomatically and, of course, militarily, strongly favoured Indonesia, so little progress was achieved. But in mid-1997, the East Asia economic crisis hit Indonesia and this generated unrest and major protests in Indonesia and East Timor and growing international pressure because of the regime’s harsh repressive tactics. This led to the eventual fall of the long time Indonesian strongman, General Soeharto, in May 1998. It was only then that what had been described by former Foreign Minister Alatas as a “pebble in my shoe” became a rock which led the parties to negotiate seriously and reach an agreement that eventually led to a UN-sponsored referendum on 30 August 1999 and the accession of East Timor (Timor Leste, as it is officially called now) to independence in 2002.
What do you see as the main objectives of the two Afghan parties (disregarding official statements that ‘We all want peace’)? Are they mutually compatible, so that the war could be ended, finally after 40 years? Where are the main clashes?
All parties to a conflict claim to want peace. Beyond this, it is hard to answer the question since the Taleban have not spelt out their political objectives. The Taleban have never declared that they might accept some kind of power-sharing, let alone spell out what this might involve. There are many on the government’s side who are suspicious of whether the Taleban would genuinely implement any power-sharing agreement. While the Afghan government has at times used this term, it is not clear what kind of power-sharing it might accept. It also insists that the republican order and the current constitution, with perhaps a few amendments, must be preserved.
Are the two visions of the Afghan state (Republic versus Emirate) truly irreconcilable, given that we have an Islamic Republic currently?
The terminology might be reconcilable although the Taleban insisted in its agreement with the US last year on being referred to as an ‘emirate’. It is not clear whether this was a matter of emphasising that they are a government or that there is a broader ideological content to the term, as I believe there is. I suspect from my talks with the Taleban when I was the UN envoy in 2000 and 2001 that the Taleban are not particularly attached to democratic elections and would prefer a system where the head of state (the amir) would have an advisory council which might conceivably be somehow elected. As a kind of compromise, they might accept the establishment of some kind of ulema council that they would control and whose approval would be required before a bill was submitted to parliament or before its enactment into law.
Such a council would reflect the current set-up in Iran…
There may be some similarities though I suspect the Taleban would discourage holding the kind of elections that periodically are held in Iran.
Are you concerned that the first round of intra-Afghan negotiations took three months and only came up with rules of procedures and two – contradictory – agenda priority lists?
It is somewhat worrying that they took so long and have yet to agree on an agenda. The absence of one single mediator or facilitator to assist the parties is one reason for the slow process. It will likely delay the adoption of an agenda and the order in which each item will be negotiated.
Is the Afghan government’s demand for an ‘up front’ ceasefire reasonable? What if the Taleban do not agree? Will they walk out?
The Afghan government’s demand is perfectly understandable. Most governments want their armed opposition to agree to that ahead of any political agreement. The insurgents on the contrary usually oppose giving up their main asset (the armed struggle) until a later stage when the government has accepted all or some of their political demands. We must also bear in mind that a ceasefire requires third-party monitoring to ensure its implementation or else it is most likely to break down. The parties might begin to exchange ideas on this matter, negotiating other items. For instance, in El Salvador, as the negotiations continued and some of the FMLN’s demands were accepted, the parties began to exchange ideas with the UN mediation team on how an eventual ceasefire might be implemented and monitored. When the peace agreement was signed, the UN dispatched a peacekeeping force to monitor both the ceasefire and the eventual disarmament of the FMLN. (Today, the FMLN is one of the two largest political parties in El Salvador. Its candidate was the country’s elected president in 2014-2019. .) A ‘reduction of violence’ is not equivalent to a ceasefire, but a very vague term which not surprisingly has been variously interpreted by the parties.
Has the Afghan peace process (some people put it in quotation marks now) in Doha already failed or is in danger of failing? Is that the actual problem?
It is too early to reach such a conclusion. Even if conducted in good faith by both sides, negotiations usually take a long time, particularly without a mediator to help bridge the mistrust between them. The question is whether the parties share a common long-term objective in these talks. There is reason to believe they do not.
Given the tight timeline set by the February 2020 agreement by the Trump administration and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and his giving away most of the available leverage just to get the Taleban to the table, which options does the Biden administration have to help foster an eventual peace?
In my view, the US gave up too early its strongest card by agreeing to a timetable for the departure of their troops. It will be a difficult decision for the Biden administration whether to adhere to this timetable or find reasons (which do exist) for delaying their withdrawal.
If the Taleban reject this view, should the US stop the withdrawal, put the whole process in question and allow full-scale war to continue, or even escalate, with no other peace option at the horizon?
This is the dilemma the US will face but withdrawing all US (and NATO) forces will not necessarily lead to a lessening of the war.
What would you do now/next if you were the mediator or facilitator in Doha?
It is very hard being far away in London to answer this question. But in my view, the next step should be to assist the parties in setting up an agenda, including a provision that nothing is agreed until everything has been agreed and that the order of tackling each item should not be dictated by its place in the agenda.
What role can countries other than the US play?
I believe a mediator or facilitator would need to keep the countries with a close stake in the process, such as Iran, Pakistan, China, the US and Russia, closely involved to ensure they buy into the process. In addition, a mediator could appoint a group of countries less directly involved in the conflict, what one may call ‘friends’ of the process, for example, Japan, a couple of countries in the Gulf, the UK and some EU members, such as Germany, with whom the mediator could brainstorm ideas and who also had some leverage with the parties, either during the negotiations or in the implementation of an eventual agreement.
Questions by AAN’s co-directors Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark.
This article was last updated on 14 Feb 2021