By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
With Afghanistan’s ‘loya jirga,’ or grand assembly apparently having ‘agreed’ the release of 400 hard-core Taliban commanders without knowing it, the war-torn country’s peace process seems finally to be advancing towards an eventual political settlement although the release has been held up temporarily.
Kabul has been able to develop a fragile political consensus around the question of the release of the Taliban commanders, although some political groups, including women’s activist forums remain diametrically opposed to the Taliban’s return to power. According to research, as many as 90 percent of Afghan women do not want the Taliban back. The consensus is, therefore, already far from unanimous. This explains why, to the despair of the US, whose president Donald Trump is desperate for a pre-election peace deal, the release of the commanders has already been halted again.
While the decision to halt the release may very well be temporary and a new consensus could emerge soon, there is no denying that the ‘Afghan conundrum’ has already seen all solutions exhausted other than a settlement with the Taliban. Kabul’s continuously changing position vis-à-vis the issue indicates a will to force a realization on the Taliban with regards to the necessity of engaging in talks and making compromises where necessary. As it stands, neither Kabul nor the Taliban can expect complete surrender from the other.
The Taliban are still largely in favor of an Islamic Emirate while Kabul aims for the country to be an electoral presidential democracy. Kabul’s position also shows how it wants to largely maintain the constitutional-structural status quo; while the Taliban aim to change and/or even reverse it.
A compromise, therefore, has to be achieved for a real and durable settlement to happen to avoid a descent into another era of civil-war – after 18 years of strife that have taken at least 111,000 Afghan civilian, military and Taliban lives and 3,500 NATO coalition ones and made 7.12 million Afghans – a fifth of the population – refugees scattered across 21 countries.
However, the see-saw happening on the question of prisoner release shows that achieving a compromise within Afghanistan has been difficult since the tentative February 29 agreement announced between the US and the Taliban.
This is due largely to the Taliban’s tendency to keep their views and position vague on important questions such as the rights of women and the future political structure. The vagueness is, however, more of a tactic than a habit. It is deeply linked with the imperative of keeping internal unity and avoiding a split. An open exchange of views on these questions would inevitably send a wrong message to the Taliban fighters, causing them to shift their alliance and even form splinter groups.
There is already concern that such a potential split would strengthen the Islamic State in Afghanistan as the hardliners will find in that outfit a better alternative than Kabul. Such a development would not only weaken the Taliban position in peace talks, but also impact their bid to establish their dominance.
It explains why the Taliban continue to call the Kabul government ‘illegitimate’ and a puppet of the US. By doing so, the Taliban not only speak to their own field fighters but also maintain their rural constituency to whom a negative image of politicians helps the Taliban present themselves as true defenders of the nation and religion. This is very much in keeping with the overall Taliban narrative of jihad vis-à-vis the foreign invaders and their local allies.
That the narrative and their politics remain qualitatively unchanged explains why even the ‘loya jirga’ couldn’t establish absolute unanimity on the question of making a peace-deal with the Taliban even after almost two decades of continuous war.
“Releasing prisoners who have been incarcerated for crimes is unacceptable to me and to others in our society,” said Mawloda Tawana, a member of the Jirga committees. “We still hold bitter memories of the dark period of the Taliban regime and no one I know is satisfied with the release of any prisoner. We also feel that our presence and role in this jirga is very symbolic. It seems to us that the Afghan government and the United States have already finalized the release and it does not matter what we decide,” she added, expressing skepticism on the transparency of the whole process.
The skepticism that Kabul is being forced to surrender to the Taliban also becomes evident from the fact that the members of the loya jirga had no information about the identity of the 400 prisoners that they themselves “decided” to release. As some members of the jirga told the media, all they know about these fighters is that they are on the Taliban list and they wanted their men to be released as a pre-condition for talks with Kabul, even though the US-Taliban agreement had not stipulated an exact number of prisoners.
While the text of the document says is that the US will “facilitate” eventual release of “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners, the Taliban clearly have taken a maximalist view, forcing on Kabul this “facilitation” as a necessary condition for talks. Indeed, in the eyes of the Taliban, Kabul must release these prisoners to become ‘legitimate.’
Similarly, as far as the question of the future of women’s rights is concerned, the jirga seems to have given in to the Taliban instead of maintaining its own constitutional position. Whereas the Afghan constitution stipulates “equal rights” for women, the jirga assured women only of an “appropriate political and social status.”
This is despite the fact that the definition of “appropriateness” can always swing to the ultra-conservative brand of Islam that the Taliban practice. Hence, the increasing opposition from within the activist groups with regards to Afghanistan’s possible descent into a hard-line male-dominated system with few to no opportunities available for women or for ethnic minorities or even Pashtun progressive elements.
Thus the “peace” being manufactured has little to offer to the people of Afghanistan other than a departure of foreign troops and a possible end to decades of bloodshed. It remains to be seen how state institutions will develop in the future when the Taliban, who will possibly have their own party, would have a near dominant presence.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel