The recent prisoner swap between the United States and the Afghan Taliban is the first major development since the collapse of the peace talks earlier this year, which suggests that the peace process’ revival has been accepted by all major stakeholders. The development, which was facilitated by Islamabad and endorsed by the Afghan government, Washington, and the Taliban, indicates that the restoration of dialogue has formally begun.
In Afghanistan’s context, the progress shows that the Afghan government is ready to work with the United States and other regional stakeholders despite the former’s previous rejection of the peace process. From the Afghan government’s perspective, the sanctioning of the recent exchange shows two things. First, while the Afghan government doesn’t stand to gain much from the prisoner swap, the former has no option but to agree with the parties making a deal. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to allow the prisoner exchange is to an extent driven by his weakening legitimacy domestically, which is not only being challenged by his political rivals, but also by stakeholders that want to make a deal with the Taliban.
Nearly two months after the Afghan presidential election, the country is nowhere in terms of reaching a consensus on who won at the polls. It’s important to note that the Ghani and his longtime political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have each claimed victory. A few weeks ago, Abdullah withdrew his team of observers from the ongoing official recount after accusing Ghani of rigging. In a statement, Abdullah said that “any results from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission would be illegitimate if his observers are not present for the tally.” As of now, the Afghan presidential election is not only dead, but has also become irrelevant to the Afghan peace process.
Second, possible intra-Afghan dialogue, which is expected to come after a deal is reached between the United States and the Taliban cannot happen unless the first phase of the peace process finds some logical conclusion. Thus, months after a controversial presidential election that never gained political legitimacy, it makes sense for all Afghan political groups that U.S.-Taliban talks resume—even if it means releasing members of the Haqqani network.
On the Taliban’s part, the release of three senior Haqqani Network leaders raises interesting questions. For one, it underscores the Taliban’s close relationship with the group: in the past, the Haqqanis have helped the Taliban in enhancing the latter’s military effectiveness and operational impact and reach. Vahid Brown and Don Rassier, in their book, Fountainhead of Jihad: Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012, note that “the relationship [between the Taliban and Haqqani’s] functions as a political alliance built upon similar histories, ideological connections, and a common vision for the future that accommodates each group’s regional preferences.” In a way, the Haqqanis have strengthened the Taliban’s campaigns over the years in regions outside Loya Paktia, particularly in Kabul. In this context, the release of the Haqqani’s members not only shows the closeness of the two groups but also points towards the former’s role in Afghan politics.
For Washington’s part, the prisoner exchange points toward the growing urgency, which is forcing the former to offer concessions that were not considered possible previously. It’s important to note that for a long time, the U.S. considered the Haqqanis a serious threat to its counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, the group has remained one of the key reasons for Washington’s troubled relationship with Islamabad and its inability to force the Taliban to surrender. Arguably, the development also highlights that the Taliban’s future negotiations with the United States are not only going to be based on quantifiable conditions, but are also expected to be tougher than previously believed.
Additionally, the release emphasizes that the group may have a considerable role in the peace process. Bruce Riedel, in his book What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89, notes that at one point “the U.S. embassy in Islamabad considered Haqqani[s] the finest and most capable Pashtun commander[s] in the war.” In this milieu, if Washington is to make a deal with the Taliban then the former will have to make a deal with the Haqqanis as well.
Pakistan’s role in the recent prisoner exchange has been stressed as crucial: last week, U.S. President Donald J. Trump called Prime Minister Imran Khan to thank him for facilitating the prison swap. As the United States is determined to secure a deal, Islamabad should be expected to extract maximum concessions to serve its security and political interests. Pakistan has had close ties not only with the Taliban, but also with the Haqqani network. Thus, the release of senior Haqqani members in exchange for two low-profile individuals would suit the interests of Islamabad.
In the coming days and weeks, the role of the Haqqani group and actors which support it can only be expected to grow in the Afghan peace process.