On July 7 and 8, a broad delegation of representatives from Afghan society partook in an intra-Afghan dialogue session with the Taliban militant group. The talks in the Qatari capital, which were jointly organized by the Gulf state and Germany, marked the first time that such a diverse group formally engaged in dialogue with the Taliban. The Afghan delegation was composed of nearly 50 individuals from across society, including civil society activists, journalists, representatives of political parties, and several individuals working for the administration of President Ashraf Ghani. Further, a substantial number of the participants were women, meeting a demand by many in Afghanistan and the international community alike that women be able to engage with the Taliban. However, all participants attended in their personal capacities, not as representatives of organizations that they are affiliated with. In doing so, the Taliban was able to meet with officials in the Afghan government without formally engaging the government, which the militant group has long refused to do.
The Intra-Afghan Conference for Peace is undoubtedly an achievement in the ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the country’s democratically elected government. Since the fall of 2018, the United States has engaged in a total of seven rounds of negotiations with the Taliban in order to reach a consensus to end the war that has now been ravaging the South Asian country for nearly 18 years. Yet direct engagement regarding the peace process between Afghan citizens and the Taliban has been extremely limited. In fact, it has been limited to two sessions held in Moscow between the political opponents of President Ghani and Taliban leaders. The two sessions occurred in the Russian capital in May and February of this year and both ended in gridlock without substantial progress being made.
Up to this point, all efforts to bring together a diverse and all-encompassing group of Afghans to engage with the Taliban have failed to materialize due to political infighting. In fact, in April a similar attempt to convene an intra-Afghan dialogue fell apart at the last minute due to disagreements between the two sides regarding the size and composition of the Afghan delegation. Such failures to engage the Afghan government and civil society in the peace process with the Taliban led to anxiety and even conspiracies regarding the peace process. Some of these concerns were logical, including that the United States would rush to a final deal with the Taliban in order to withdraw troops from the South Asian country without regard for preserving the gains made during the past 18 years. Others were met with outrage, such as accusations that U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad was intentionally excluding Afghans from the talks so that he could eventually become the South Asian country’s president.
Nevertheless, the intra-Afghan dialogue that occurred on July 7 and 8 can put some of these concerns to rest, at least temporarily. During the dialogue, the two sides were able to directly raise their concerns over issues ranging from women’s rights to elections to the role of Islam in the governance of Afghanistan. Further, the two sides managed to come together and release a statement of principles at the conclusion of the dialogue that outlined their stances on a wide range of issues. Importantly, the Afghan delegation was unanimously united in their demands to the Taliban. This was noted by Khalid Noor, an influential youth activist form Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province who was also present in Moscow for the talks in May. Reflecting upon the talks, Noor indicated, “All of us were united in what we were demanding from the Taliban, which is the preservation of the current system of government, a republic.”
Notably, the talks in Doha were the first time this question has been directly raised with the Taliban. Currently, Afghanistan is governed under a constitutional republic, in which the government is democratically elected, as seen in the country’s name the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Alternatively, the Taliban believe that Afghanistan must be governed under the monarchical system of an Islamic Emirate, which would resemble the governing structure of gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia or potentially the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
During the period that the Taliban controlled the country during the last decade of the 20th century, they renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban have continued to insist that this is the only system of governance the militant group would accept in any peace agreement. Understandably, this issue has been at the forefront of the minds of many Afghans who value their democratic system of governance. This worry has been bolstered by the United States clearly stating that the system of governance is an issue to be decided directly between Afghans and the Taliban, not between Washington and the militant group.
The discussion between the Afghan delegation and the Taliban over this issue has yet to put anyone at ease. Noor, present at the talks, indicated he asked the Taliban representatives very directly if they would support a republic with elections or not. “Given that the system as it is today has to change, would they be willing to become part of the democratic system and partake in elections or not?” he asked. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban refused to directly answer this question and continuously attempted to dodge it. In effect, this left the Afghan people with more questions than answers regarding the willingness of the Taliban to integrate into a democratic system of governance.
Another question that has yet to be answered is the stance of the Taliban on freedom of the press and the rights of journalists. This is particularly relevant given that only a few weeks ago the Taliban issued an order calling for major media outlets in Afghanistan to be attacked. This issue was brought up directly with the Taliban over the weekend in Doha. “It is somewhat confusing, but also very worrisome. They [the Taliban] claim that they support journalists and freedom of the press but at the same time they recently threatened to attack media outlets that they say are spreading anti-jihad propaganda,” indicated Noor. He continued, “I then asked them directly about the order that they issued to attack journalists. They claimed that this was only regarding advertisements calling for their fighters to be killed, but to me that claim just does not add up.”
These and other issues were addressed in a press statement released late in the night after the conclusion of the dialogue. Yet this is merely an outline and broad agreement on several issues that unfortunately will likely not hold. The Taliban claimed that they will cease actively targeting civilians. However, it is unlikely this promise will be realized, given the actions of the group over the nearly two decades that it has engaged in warfare with the government of Afghanistan. Other issues such as women’s rights were agreed to in the overall context of being in accordance with Islamic law. Understandably, this has caused concern as such a context could be used to impose draconian restrictions on women’s rights that are commonplace in Islamic kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia.
In short, the intra-Afghan dialogue that occurred in Qatar is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, yet it did not solidify anything and is only the beginning of a process that is likely going to be combative and long. Specifically, following an agreement between the United States and the Taliban on issues of military positioning and security, the Afghan government will have to engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban over the future of the country. This is immensely worrisome to Noor, who fears that such a process might not be inclusive. He stated, “Yes, the intra-Afghan dialogue was very inclusive and representative of Afghan society. However, this is merely dialogue and the real test will be in formal negotiations.” Noor strongly holds the conviction that all factions of Afghan society must make concessions in order to approach the peace process in a unified manner. He claims that “If the current government thinks that they can negotiate a peace accord with the Taliban that will last if they do not involve the political opposition they are lying to themselves. The same is true regarding the involvement of youth and women.”
The intra-Afghan dialogue was undoubtedly a positive effort to further the peace process in an attempt to bring an end to the decades long war in Afghanistan. However, it will take far more time and hard work before formal negotiations even commence. Further, it is imperative that succeeding steps in the peace process are inclusive if both sides are to reach an agreement that is long-lasting and sustainable.
R. Maxwell Bone is Vice President for Political Affairs, Democracy, and Governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD). He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @maxbone55.