After 18 years of war and 18 months of negotiations, after 32,000 civilians killed in the last 10 years, 45,000 Afghan soldiers killed in the last five years alone and more than 2,400 dead US soldiers, the war seems to be finally giving way to hope. However, even though Feb. 29 was certainly a day for celebration—and the role of the proverbial Cassandra is never held in high regard—we must remain cautious.
The agreement signed on Saturday was a preliminary one, not a full peace treaty, which will require in turn—and herein lies the biggest challenge ahead—that all the Afghan sides must come together: the Taliban, the government and “civil society” (a term we must take with a grain of salt).
The Taliban—who appear to be, at least in the conduct of negotiations with the Americans, a homogenous force—are vying against a government that is disoriented, if not in the process of disintegration, still led at the moment by former President Ghani and “co-president” Abdullah. As we know, both of them claimed victory at the last presidential elections (Ghani with the confirmation of the Electoral Commission, Abdullah rejecting its conclusions), but decided—under US pressure—to postpone the reckoning to the post-Doha period, keeping their powder dry for now.
However, some elements of the government have already stressed their doubts about the future: for instance, Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s vice-president and likely successor, a former minister and head of Afghan intelligence until 2010, wrote for Time magazine that after having fought against the Taliban, he was now ready to meet them at the ballot box instead; however, on the day the issue came out, he added on Twitter: “I may forgive but will never ever forget.”
Ghani shares these doubts, but Abdullah harbors even more, fueled by his suspicion of ethnic sympathies among the Pasthun, a community to which both the Taliban guerrillas and the president belong. Finally, there is the looming and entirely novel prospect of an interim government that would not only sidestep the dispute over the last presidential election, but would lead the way to a government with Taliban ministers—if not right now, then later. That solution would certainly have some merits, but some 20 or so US Congressmen have already sided against it, fearing that the US withdrawal would mean giving carte blanche to the Islamist orthodoxy of the Taliban.
On this issue, on the eve of the summit in Doha, the official spokesman of the Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, reignited the controversy, telling Al Jazeera that as regards women’s rights, “if they want to have education we have no problem with that, if they want to work, we have no problem with that,” with the only condition being that they “wear the hijab.” A very interesting aspect of his statement was his use of the term hijab (the veil) instead of chadri (the burqa). Shaheen also said that the Taliban “agree with the freedom of the press within the structure of the Islamic principles.”
But what does “Islamic principles” actually mean? Does this include the revisionism (or reinterpretation) of these principles by the followers of the hardline Deobandi school, as well as the strict laws of the Pashtunwali, the tribal code? These uncertainties are compounded by other issues such as the fate of the Taliban prisoners in the hands of the Afghan government or the Americans, the freezing of assets and the arrest warrants still formally in place.
Finally, there is the issue of the US withdrawal: there is both a fixed timeline and a much more vague calendar, with the threat that everything might change in case of violations (which all actors involved will be able to claim). There is also a lack of a framework to accompany the intra-Afghan dialogue. Washington is acting as the guarantor for this process, but this is not enough.
The desires and fears of other actors near and far—from Pakistan to Iran, from India to Russia—will not be satisfied by an Afghan negotiating table overseen by the Americans alone. There are rumors of a list of possible mediators (the name of Federica Mogherini has also been circulating, although she has denied this possibility) that might be involved in bringing about this uncertain future.
For now, the hurry to get something done before the US presidential elections seems to have resulted in the premature birth of an agreement that is still very frail.
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