Afghan Dialogue: A new stall

Spearhead Analysis – 23.04.2019

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The two-day intra-Afghan dialogue was scheduled to be held on the 19th of April 2019 in Qatar. The talks were expected to assemble Afghan Taliban leaders and various Afghan politicians, tribal elders and civil society representatives, to forge a broad consensus on the political future of Afghanistan.

However, due to last minute disruptions the talks had to be postponed. According to reports quoting the Afghan government, the talks were cancelled owing to a disagreement by the Afghan Taliban over some of the attendees sanctioned by the Afghan Government. Whereas, the reports quoting the Afghan Taliban claim that the disruption occurred  due to the Afghan presidential palace’s sudden reference to the list of attendees as ‘official representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’,—- even though it had been  agreed that the various representatives from Afghanistan would be participating in the talks in their personal capacity. There have been positive developments in the US-Afghan Taliban dialogue. Last month’s reports also revealed that the US- Taliban talks may soon agree on a timeline for a gradual US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for certain political pledges from the Afghan Taliban.

However, divergent views between the Afghan Government and the US administration’s approach were simmering amidst US-Taliban talks. According to Michael O’Hanlon, The Afghan National Security Advisor’s  outburst regarding the ambition of Khalilzad to serve as a viceroy of Afghanistan was indicative of Ashraf Ghani’s anxieties. He is against direct talks between US and Afghan Taliban resulting in any agreement that excludes the Afghan Government. He also stated that an apparent divide between the Trump administration and President Ghani could further complicate the security situation in Afghanistan.

Direct talks with the US were one of the major demands of the Afghan Taliban, but years of fighting are unlikely to resolve the conflict instantaneously. Despite the exclusion of the official Afghan Government from the various rounds of talks–: the recently cancelled intra-Afghan dialogue was the first positive step towards a tacit recognition and a more inclusive dialogue.

According to M.K.BHADRAKUMAR:  The sequence of events over the past fortnight suggests that Kabul has attempted to block the progression of the Intra-Afghan talks, just as the Taliban softened their stance on agreeing to meet with various Afghan political heads. The sudden announcement of  “Operation Khalid’ by the Afghan Government on April 2nd led to a reaction from the Afghan Taliban. They announced their  the Spring offensive on 12th April. The current fighting season is likely to be messier owing to the presence of IS-K and the recent US strains with Iran. All this has once again created hurdles in the Afghan talks, which could block any peace settlement for now. He added that Delhi has heavily invested in Ghani’s circle and India has conveyed its disquiet directly to Washington regarding any move to replace Ghani with an interim government on some pretext.

The current preoccupations in Delhi over the general election will be over by May 19, and in the interim, the Indian establishment has heaved  a sigh of relief  that the Ghani government has succeeded in slowing down the Khalilzad led talks.

Presently, it appears that the Afghan talks may witness a new stall, as Afghanistan prepares for a new fighting season. Recently, the Afghanistan Supreme Court has also extended the term of President Ashraf Ghani until elections, which have now been delayed until September 28th 2019- eliminating any scope of an interim setup. The internal Afghan political landscape appears contentious as several political figures are accusing President Ghani of exploiting the security situation to ensure another term in office. It needs to be seen how and when an inclusive dialogue would be held.