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Afghan politicians grapple with rifts before key talks

As deadline for proposed intra-Afghan talks with Taliban looms, politicians fail to agree on negotiating team

Shadi Khan Saif   | 07.03.2020
Afghan politicians grapple with rifts before key talks

KABUL, Afghanistan

With the clock ticking, the Afghan political arena remains tumultuous as rival camps continue to grapple with internal rifts over the formation of a team for landmark peace talks with the Taliban.

As the March 10 deadline approaches for the intra-Afghan talks, there are no evident signs of any negotiating team from Kabul that is supposed to hold talks with the insurgents on pivotal issues such as a ceasefire, prisoners swap and future government setup.

Following the conclusion of the monumental Taliban-U.S. deal on Feb. 29, the only tangible yet trivial headway made towards intra-Afghan talks has been the establishment of a relatively lower-rank primary group by Kabul for initial contact with the Taliban, with the insurgents shrugging it aside.

In line with the historic deal signed on Saturday, intra-Afghan talks should get underway soon.

Political wrangling in Kabul

For months, the process of long-due Afghan presidential polls ran parallel and often clashed with the on-and-off peace parley. The electoral process was only put on the back burner a week ahead of the signing of the Taliban-U.S. deal. At Washington’s request, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani halted his oath taking ceremony until March 9 with the other frontrunners challenging his re-election.

They include the president’s power-sharing Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has threatened to form his own “inclusive government” and wants the official negotiating team with the Taliban to represent all political forces and segments of the society.

“Now, only the Americans can unlock this crisis,” Akram Arefi, a Kabul-based professor of international affairs, told Anadolu Agency, referring to the internal rift over the negotiating team.

He said all internal efforts for mediation seem in vain, and only Washington – Kabul’s main backer – can compel the disputing parties to be flexible and unite.

Syed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban-era official, agreed. He told Anadolu Agency the rigorous pursuit of personal and political agendas in Kabul undermines a unified stance from the Afghan government to be demonstrated at the negotiating table.

“Unless foreigners intervene, the Afghan politicians are not likely to reach an agreement on this matter,” he said.

Abdullah’s 'Stability and Convergence' team has already threatened to begin appointing key government officials in different provinces as part of their own so-called “inclusive government” in defiance of the electoral victory claimed by President Ghani.

A key figure in the team, Fazel Ahmed Manavy, said it is a “starting point.”

“The nomination of governors for northern provinces is the starting point. Talks have also been held for appointments in the southern provinces as well,” he said.

Quest for upper hand in talks

Vowing to ensure inclusiveness in a negotiating team under the authority of the government, Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the government has formed an initial 'direct contact group' based on the requests of the Taliban and international partners.

''They (members of the contact group) are not negotiating the release of prisoners. It’s just a contact group to initiate direct contacts with the Taliban," Faisal clarified.

Downplaying the significance of this group, the Taliban said they want their estimated 5,000 prisoners in different prisons across Afghanistan to be released ahead of the talks.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency that tactics to delay the release of prisoners will have cascading effects on other commitments.

"As per the agreement, both sides would release the prisoners until March 10. We are committed to our promise to release Afghan soldiers and police personnel. The U.S. is obliged to free our 5,000 prisoners,” said Shaheen.

He said any delay in the release of prisoners will mean delaying other commitments, including the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Shaheen was referring to President Ghani’s statement that his government had not made any commitment to release the Taliban prisoners.

Determined to uphold the Constitution and democratic transfer of power, Ghani has demanded the Taliban to shun ties with Pakistan -- seen with deep suspicion by the Afghan government as the main backer of the insurgents -- for the prisoners swap to move ahead.

Addressing a public gathering in eastern Nangarhar province, he said the Afghan Taliban could not justify their insurgency after signing a peace deal with the U.S.

“You [Taliban leaders] have made peace with the foreigners, so what does your jihad mean now?…The killing of fellow Afghans is a crime,” said Ghani, who has expressed reservations over the peace agreement.

"If the Taliban have set the release of their prisoners as a condition for intra-Afghan talks, we also have conditions. They should tell me when are they going to leave [break ties with] Pakistan.”

War-weary Afghans took to the streets in the hundreds this week in different cities against the Taliban’s call to resume attacks on Afghan forces after sealing the deal with the Americans.

With bitter memories of the civil war in the 1990s still haunting many Afghans, they called on all warring sides to seize this exceptional opportunity for peace after decades of bloodshed.

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