By Ali Ahmad
On April 26th, the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) organized a joint, virtual panel discussion on the Afghan peace process. The discussion was entitled “Afghanistan Peace Talks: A road to nowhere?” The panel consisted of Fawzia Koofi (member of Afghanistan peace delegation), Sima Samar (former head of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission), Bilal Sarwary (Afghan journalist based in Kabul) and Rahela Sediqi (the Afghan diaspora representative in Europe). The discussion covered the prospect of peace process, ceasefire, withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the role of Afghan diaspora. BBC journalist Sana Safi moderated the 90 minute online discussion.
When President Joe Biden announced the unconditional removal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14th, the withdrawal news shocked Fawzia Koofi who until then believed that a political settlement will lead to the withdrawal of foreign forces from her country. The announcement, she recalled, created uncertainty and reminded her of the 90s when the international community had abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet-backed government collapsed and the country fell into civil war, which subsequently led to the emergence of the Taliban in 1994.
“When President Biden announced withdrawal of troops, it surprised us all. The tricky part was the unconditional withdrawal of troops because even if the withdrawal was based on the Doha agreement, the four elements of the Doha agreement are inter-linked,” said Koofi. According to the U.S.-Taliban deal that was signed on February 2020, the U.S. troops should have been out of Afghanistan by May the 1st 2021 in exchange for the Taliban to cut their relationships with the international terror groups. This included Al-Qaeda and its offspring networks in Pakistan. The other element was for Taliban to start peace negotiations with the Afghan government, and to institute measures to prevent any terror groups from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies’. Lastly, the agreement ensured the release of up to 5,000 prisoners. The U.S. pressurized the Afghan government to release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the Afghan government and the Taliban kicked off their first meeting in September last year. Koofi claimed that the Afghan government, however, released this large number of prisoners in “good faith” some of whom have returned to the battlefield despite the fact that the Afghan government was not a signatory of the deal. Based on various reports, the Taliban are yet to cut their ties with transnational terror groups and still enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan.
According to Sarwary, the Americans used the U.S.-Taliban agreement as an exit deal with many secret parts. The biggest leverage that the Afghan government had was the release of 5,000 prisoners that were set free under immense U.S. pressure. The deal failed to end the carnage and violence in Afghanistan, Sarwary said. Based on United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), a total of 3,035 Afghan civilians lost their lives and another 5,785 were injured in 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, another 1,783 civilians were either killed or injured.
“When you talk about these casualties, you talk about coffins going back to remote areas of Badakhshan, Takhar or Samanagan. Each coffin basically falls literally like a thunder on a family. You have cases of entire families being wiped out in all these attacks,” Bilal stated as he reflected on the loss of lives for which all parties of the conflict is responsible for. Sawary warned that new phases of conflict will escalate in the absence of ceasefire and credible durable peace process.
Escalation of conflict in the absence of U.S. air power
The talks have stalled since the Biden administration took office in January, with the objective to review the U.S.-Taliban deal. With a new timeline announced in April, Biden set a new date for the departure of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan that will begin on May 1st and will end by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The remaining 2,500 U.S. troops have formally started to withdraw from Afghanistan as of May 1st. Bilal Sarwary feared that a new phase of conflict and bloodshed will begin as the U.S. pull out their troops from Afghanistan. According to Sarwary, the foreign forces have been providing air power to the Afghan security forces in pushing the Taliban back. Biden’s decision will have a “huge consequences” warned the U.S. former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking of nation-building,” Biden stated during his address to a joint session of Congress on April 29th. “We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, “Biden addressed the Congress. On the May 2nd 2011, the U.S. military killed the mastermind of 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, a small city near Islamabad.
Fawzia Koofi said that the U.S.-Taliban agreement had injected a false sense of victory among the Taliban. “If they (Taliban) did not get what they want on the negotiation table, then they expect a victory in the battlefield. The mentality of victory was a major challenge and obstacle for us to reach an agreement sooner,” recalled Koofi. Similarly, Sarwary who has reported from vast part of Afghanistan, including the areas under the control of Taliban said that Taliban’s military leaders and commanders believe in military victory and they call their fighters “soldiers of victory.”
Sima Samar identified a number of shortcomings that the U.S. have committed since the start of the negotiation between the U.S. and the Taliban. Firstly, Americans gave the Taliban much more recognition than they (Taliban) deserved. Secondly, the U.S. undermined the involvement of legal Afghan government during the entire peace talks regardless of how popular the Afghan government is within Afghanistan. Thirdly, Samar also blamed the Afghan government for failing to unite the Afghan people around peace processes and for wasting opportunities to unify the Afghan people. For Sima Samar, the current peace talks are not inclusive enough because of the lack of representation from the victims of war, minorities and civil society.
No peace in the absence of human rights
Comprehensive ceasefire would have been on the top of the agenda of the current peace talks, had Samar started the talks with the Taliban. “Ceasefire is good and a basic step for peace building to stop bleeding and killing and stop adding deeper wounds within the society, but that is not peace. We need to work for a sustainable and durable peace in Afghanistan through inclusivity, united approach by the people who are in democratic or republic front, and acknowledgement of the people’s suffering,” Samar stated during the virtual discussion. She also stressed on upholding the human rights and women’s rights as a main condition during the entire peace process. “If we don’t have human rights protected, then there will not be peace, rather it will be a short-term political deal,” Samar said.
During month-long negotiations with the Taliban, Koofi stated the ceasefire was the top agenda for the Afghan government delegation, while the establishment of an ‘Islamic structure’ was a priority for Taliban, without elaborating on how an ‘Islamic structure’ would look like. Samar shared similar concerns on lack of clarity on the Taliban’s interpretation of Shari’at or Islamic structure that they (Taliban) envision for Afghanistan.
Afghan diaspora to lobby for peace
During 1996-2001 of Taliban rule, women were banned from pursuing education, appearing in social life and work. It is feared that the withdrawal will take Afghanistan back to the pre-invasion time when Afghan women had lost their basic rights. Rahela Sediqi is deeply concerned about what will happen to millions of girls in schools, and additionally to thousands of women in the army, police, and civil society when the international forces leave Afghanistan. “Who will guarantee women’s rights in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan?” asked Sediqi. Speaking on the role of Afghan diaspora in peace process, Sediqi requested the Afghan diaspora that they should lobby in an organized manner in countries of their residence for a fair and just peace.
To reach a political settlement, Turkey has planned to host a U.N.-led conference on Afghan peace process starting on April 24th, but the Taliban refused to participate “until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland,” the insurgents’ spokesperson said. The talks will go ahead as planned after the month of Ramadan, the Muslims’ holy month of fasting which ends on May 11th. Koofi, however, is not confident if the talks will ever take place. She warned that the situation would not be easy and smooth as before.