Setting the stage for Afghanistan negotiations

For the Afghans, the creation of a nation out of diversity has been a long struggle

Shahid Javed Burki September 20, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


Getting the warring people of Afghanistan to sit face to face at a negotiating table was one very difficult act; the other, much more difficult, will be to have the country’s very diverse people agree on one system of governance. The Taliban agreed to talk to the government in Kabul they had repeatedly called a lackey of the West — of the United States in particular — only after Washington agreed to two demands. The first was to pull out its troops from the country in which its presence had lasted for 19 years. The Americans agreed to follow a withdrawal timetable that would have all their troops out by May 2021. The US has implemented its part of the bargain. It has drawn down its troops from 12,000 to 8,600 by the end of summer 2020 and President Trump is interested in bringing the count down to 4,500 by the time of the November 2020 elections.

The insurgents’ other condition was to have the Kabul government release 5,000 prisoners the government had taken over the years. Washington could do little to implement this demand; it could pressure the Kabul government to satisfy the Taliban wish, who had clearly indicated that they would sit down with the government only after all those who were in prison would be let go. Some of those incarcerated had committed serious crimes. It took Kabul 10 months before this demand was met to the satisfaction of the Taliban.

In return, the insurgents agreed not to target US and other international troops and break ties with Al Qaeda. While the growing presence of the Islamic State was of concern to both the government in Kabul and the US, the Taliban said they did not have control over this particular group. The Taliban also did not promise to spare government security personnel. According to independent observers, continued attacks on government forces had killed or wounded more than 10,000 security personnel since the accord with the US was signed on February 29, 2020.

Whether the symbolism was intended or accidental, the delayed peace negotiations between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban started in Doha, Qatar, on September 11, 2020. This was the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attack on two of the three intended targets in the US. Of the four planes hijacked by a group of Muslim radicals, two flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and one was crashed into the Pentagon building near Washington. A fourth plane was brought down by its passengers in a field in Pennsylvania. It might have been heading towards the Capitol, the building that houses United States Congress, or the White House.

The administration headed by President George W Bush that had come to office eight months before this incident concluded that the militant group Al Qaeda was behind the attack. Headed by the Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden, the group had been given a sanctuary by the Taliban government that had governed Afghanistan for almost five years. Washington concluded that the Taliban had to be punished for giving space to Al Qaeda. It ordered the invasion of Kabul and the removal of the Taliban from the Afghan capital. This was done in late December with the help of the Tajiks who live in the northeast of Afghanistan and were the main component in a coalition of forces that had operated under the name of the Northern Alliance. Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik who led the Northern Alliance, was killed in a suicide attack a couple of days before the terrorist attack on the US.

In coming to an agreement with the Taliban, the US had one overriding concern. The country should never allow a group of extremists to operate from its soil. The Taliban had two interests: to get the Americans and their allies to leave their country and to have the Kabul government release 5,000 of its people who were languishing in the country’s jails. It took the two parties one year to thrash out an agreement that would reconcile these three interests. Ultimately in the February 2020 Doha Agreement, the Taliban leadership promised that their soil would never be used for operations by extremist organisations; that the Taliban would begin talking to the Kabul government after the latter had released all prisoners, and that a timetable would be drawn up for taking out all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The agreement left a number of important issues to be settled by the Afghans themselves. These included the accommodation of many ethnic groups into a political system that allows the sharing of power. While religion will be used to define the main elements of governance, the system to be adopted would grant full human rights to the country’s women. The government structure would also fully accommodate all religious minorities, in particular the Shiites who made up an eighth of the country’s population. Whenever differences cropped up between various groups of the Afghan population, they would be resolved within the context of the new Constitution that would be the product of these deliberations. The Constitution that was written by the Americans and agreed to by a segment of the Afghan population in an international gathering in Bonn, Germany, in late 2001, would be repealed. It will be replaced by a system that is more in tune with Islam.

For the Afghans, the creation of a nation out of diversity has been a long struggle. It has lasted for centuries. There are other differences that have made nation-building difficult. Although Islam is the predominant religion in the country, two of its prominent sects — the Sunnis and the Shiites — have often been at war. This has especially been the case following the rise of the Taliban who follows the extremist Sunni sect of Islam. The Sunni-Shiite divide affects external relations. While the Taliban looks to Saudi Arabia for inspiration and also for financial assistance, the Shiite community of Hazaras has the support of Iran. However, ethnic differences make it really difficult to build a nation out of diversity. In the multi-ethnic Afghanistan, the Taliban drew their strength from the Pakhtun (or Pashtun) community that makes up 45% of the country’s population of 34 million people. This means that of the 62 million Pakhtuns in the world, 15.3 million live in Afghanistan. The Tajiks are the second-largest ethnic group in the country with 27% of the total population. The 9.2 million Afghan-Tajiks are located in the country’s northeast. There are more Tajiks who are citizens of Afghanistan than of Tajikistan. The Tajik population of Tajikistan is 7.6 million out of 9.5 million. The Uzbeks and the Hazaras make up the same proportion of the population — 9% or 3 million people each. Settling these diverse ethnic groups in one political system will be one of the more difficult tasks before the parties involved in the Doha negotiations.


Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2020.

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