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After interminable delays, internal political stalemates and ruptures, all aggravated by the machinations of external powers – the US and NATO most drastically, but India and Pakistan are also heavily involved as well as many others -, as well as cycles of escalating violence and widespread military clashes associated primarily but by no means exclusively with the resolute Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan is heading into what could be one of the most important periods in its modern history – perhaps the most important since the times of the British invasion and the expulsion of the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century.
The last official obstacle that has been blocking the start of the intra-Afghan peace dialogue has been removed notwithstanding a last minute complication. The Taliban have released some additional Afghan security forces personnel, and the Afghan government has released almost all of the remaining Taliban prisoners that were to be released pursuant to the US-Taliban agreement signed in February of this year. Less than a dozen Taliban prisoners remain to be released, the delay due to protests by the Australian and French governments.
Nonetheless, the greatest practical barrier – the widespread violence and clashes between the armed protagonists – still plagues the country, as the military forces of both sides seem to be trying to make some final gains on the battlefield, presumably thinking this might somehow improve their negotiating positions or give them a psychological advantage as the commencement of dialogues appears to be imminent.
The Afghan people and international organizations have called on both sides to immediately declare a ceasefire to demonstrate that they are indeed committed to the peace process.
The final date for the dialogues to start still has not been finalized as logistical and technical problems continue to hold up the organization of the respective delegations that will spearhead the discussions to be held in Doha.
Since the US Taliban deal was concluded in February, the prisoner swap aspect of the deal has been presented by the Taliban and the Afghan government has the major obstacle blocking the initiation of direct dialogue. The Taliban stated on many occasions that they were willing to start talks within a week once the remaining prisoners were released.
The Afghan government eventually released around 400 hundred prisoners, but refused to release the remaining prisoners (around 70) that they claimed were ‘extremely dangerous’ and could constitute a security threat. Afghan officials also claimed that the Taliban had not released all of their prisoners. It later transpired that government officials were being pressured by Western countries participating in the military occupation of Afghanistan not to release Taliban members who killed some of their soldiers.
Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani referred the final decision as to whether the remaining Taliban prisoners should be released to a traditional gathering known as a Loya Jirga — a grand assembly of Afghan leaders and tribal elders, which endorsed the release of the prisoners as a way to initiate peace and also called on all parties to stop blocking negotiations and establish an inclusive and comprehensive peace process with utmost urgency.
It appears that the prisoner-swap obstacle has finally been removed, and both sides are undertaking the final preparations to send their delegations to Doha for talks to commence. The TOLO news outlet reported earlier today:
“Sources close to the Afghan government’s negotiating team said that their delegation is likely to depart on Saturday.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, in a note to TOLOnews said that an exact date for the start of the intra-Afghan talks has not been set due to some technical issues.
Sources familiar with the Afghan peace process said one of the core issues for the delay is that the Taliban has so far not completed the members of their peace negotiating team in Doha.
Yesterday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a cabinet meeting said all obstructions have been removed from the way of the peace talks, stating that the negotiations will kick off in near future.
“We do not have any hostage with the Taliban from our commandos or others. The Taliban is also confident that their hardcore prisoners were released, so there should be no more excuses,” said Abdul Rahim Rahin, a former MP.
“The Taliban’s delegation has so far not returned from Pakistan to Qatar. Also, the seven Taliban prisoners against whom Australia and France expressed their reservations have not been transferred to Qatar from Bagram (district in Afghanistan),” said Sami Yousuzai, a freelance journalist in Doha.”
Two Taliban officials have confirmed that almost all of the remaining prisoners had been freed, but that those opposed by France and Australia were still in government custody.
The Afghan government and Taliban will go ahead with peace talks in Doha despite the fate of seven jailed insurgents remaining undecided because of objections to their release from France and Australia, officials said.
“The issue of the seven prisoners is still being discussed within the involved parties but it is unlikely to delay the peace talks,” said Shared Abdul Kabir Wasiq, deputy spokesman for the Office of National Security.
Australia and France had officially asked Kabul not to release Taliban prisoners convicted of killing their citizens.
“Foreign forces occupying Afghanistan were killed in battles. They were in Afghanistan illegally and we were fighting them. We have not raised issues of violations and thousands of our people being killed by the foreigners because we want to turn over a new leaf and work towards bringing peace to Afghanistan,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, told Al Jazeera last week.
“If occupation powers insist on reviving old issues, it would hamper the peace process.”
The topic of war crimes committed by fighters and officials in the chain of command from all sides is one of the topics that the negotiations will have to tackle.
Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation which has official responsibility for efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban, has stated that a ceasefire will top the agenda at the talks.
Ongoing violence and clashes
There has also been a lot of activity on the battlefields over the last few days. Earlier this week at least three members of Afghan government forces were killed after Taliban fighters launched a complex attack on a military base in the eastern city of Gardez.
Abdul Rahman Mangal, spokesman for Paktia provincial authorities, said at least five other officers were wounded in the attack, adding that security forces killed both attackers in a gun battle in the provincial capital. In the attack, a suicide car bomber targeted the entrance gate of the base in Gardez, then two gunmen started shooting at the public protection forces – a paramilitary-style force funded by the government. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Earlier today, Afghan military officials claimed that at least 46 Taliban insurgents were killed and 37 others wounded in clashes with the Afghan security forces in the North of Afghanistan.
The 209 Shaheen corps said Friday in a statement that Taliban planned to set attacks on security forces in Qaisar district of Faryab, with a large numbers of fighters that the militants recruited in Badghis, Ghor, Baghlan, Kundoz and Helmand provinces.
According to the statement, Mullah Nasiruddin, the commander of Red-Unit of the Taliban, Mullah Khalilullah, the Taliban commander for Qaisar and Mullah Norulhoda, a key Taliban commander were among the killed.
“Several stations of the Taliban were destroyed,” the statement said. “Some weapons and ammunition as well as several vehicles were seized by the security forces.” LINK
While the armed clash continue to cast a grave shadow over the prospects that substantive progress can be made in the dialogues, both sides continue to express they are making final preparations to send their delegations to Doha, possibly even later today or tomorrow. The armed clashes therefore seem to be an effort to give a final boost to their field positions and public statements before talks begin in earnest.
The High Council for National Reconciliation
Last week, the final list of members of the High Council for National Reconciliation were in a decree by President Ghani. Based on the Ghani-Abdullah political agreement signed in May, the High Council for National Reconciliation is to be an independent council, but its members must be officially approved by presidential decree.
It is not yet clear if the composition of the High Council is going to become the latest in a long series of political squabbles between Ghani and Abdullah since the disputed presidential election, squabbles that have prevented the formation of a unity government and the peace process for much of this year as each has sought to outmanoeuvre the other for control over political and administrative appointments.
The membership of the council met with mixed reactions by major political parties and politicians. Some of the people proposed on the official list, such as former president Hamid Karzai, have rejected their membership, while most others have readily accepted their membership of the council.
The council comprises 10 members with designated leadership roles, nine women members, nine senior government officials, and 19 members who include representatives of several major political factions and former mujahideen leaders.
The final composition listed in the decree would mean that Abdullah has seven deputies, while based on the political agreement he should have six deputies. These include his two running mates in the 2019 presidential election.
Former president Hamid Karzai in a statement said he will continue his efforts for peace, but rejected his membership in the council, saying he would serve in no government institution.
Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called the membership of mujahideen and political leaders in the council symbolic and ineffective.
“The formation of a powerful high council that does not have the nature of a government mission is the main principle for effective intra-Afghan negotiations,” said Hafiz-Ur-Rahman Naqi, the deputy head of Hizb-e-Islami.
Salahuddin Rabbani, former minister of foreign affairs, is also included in the 46-member list.
Rabbani in a statement said that he was not consulted about the inclusion of his name on the list; therefore, he rejects his membership.
The decision also faced criticism by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“No woman is leading any structure of peace that has been created by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This is very concerning for me,” chairperson of the commission Shahrzad Akbar said.
Former mujahideen leader Mohammad Ismail Khan, whose name is also on the list, said he has some considerations about the position of some figures in the council.
“The list that was announced includes more important and more influential figures than in the past, but the important matter is the leadership of the High Council for National Reconciliation,” he said. “They have included big names on the list who cannot be there as members (of the council).
Mohammad Karim Khalili, former head of the High Peace Council and a close aide to Abdullah, called this a list of “Ghani’s favorites.”
Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, meanwhile, called the council inclusive and an important step for peace in the country.
“Let’s see whether the council will start its work, considering the difference among those whose names have been added (to the list),” Danesh said. LINK
Apart from the appointment of senior government figures to leadership roles on the council, Afghanistan’s youth has once again been left aside and voiceless as their future is being determined. The political hacks apparently don’t think they have anything positive to contribute to the process.
According to another report:
Other politicians said the list announced by the Presidential Palace requires some changes because some political figures, elders and youth should be added to it.
“If there isn’t a change (on the list) and there will be the same figures who were against the Taliban their whole lives and fought against the Taliban, I think we will not want these individuals to be there again,” said Sayed Ishaq Gailani, head of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan.
“There are internal and international pressures on the Presidential Palace. Foreigners at the moment do not have the will for peace but are looking after their short-term interests,” said Khan Kabuli, an analyst.
On Monday, Abdullah stated his opposition to President Ashraf Ghani’s list of council members, saying that according to the political agreement it is the authority of the head of the council to appoint its members.
Abdullah quoted the agreement signed in May, saying: “The head of the High Council of National Reconciliation forms the council in consultation with the president, sides and political leaders, speakers of the houses of parliament, the civil society and elites of the country.”
Therefore, Abdullah said, there is no need for a presidential decree on the formation of the council, and the selection of members falls under the authority of the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
A future multilateral peace force
Another crucial matter is the future of international security and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. The current format, a US-led and commanded military operation with an agglomeration of NATO military forces plus a few other US allies and associates, must be replaced by a legitimate and transparent international mission, one that is not commanded and controlled by the US and NATO.
Ultimately, the need for and parameters of such an international mission would ideally by decided by the Afghans, in a manner that leaves no doubt that a large majority of the people support the decision.
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