by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 7, Muharram, 1442)
Even though Afghan President Ashraf Ghani got the backing of the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) that was convened from August 7-9, to release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners, he is dragging his feet. This is merely prolonging the misery of the Afghan people. The US-installed puppet may buy some time but his already limited authority and space are fast shrinking.
Ever since the US-Taliban deal was signed on February 29, 2020, Ghani has repeatedly thrown hurdles in order to frustrate its implementation. Since the Loya Jirga, that provided Ghani a way out of his predicament, his regime has released only 80 of the 400 Taliban prisoners it is holding. The Taliban say they have released all 1,000 government troops although the regime alleges the resistance group has still not released the last 20.
Ghani’s stubbornness is delaying the intra-Afghan dialogue. He has put forth various excuses to drag the process demanding that there should be a ceasefire immediately after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are released.
The US-Taliban deal clearly states that ceasefire would be negotiated during intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the movement was committed to the deal they signed with the US. According to the deal “the ceasefire will be one of the items to be discussed during the intra-Afghan negotiations,” he said.
On the eve of the jirga on August 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged the delegates to take “this difficult action” [to release the 400 Taliban prisoners] so negotiations could begin to bring an end to the war (emphasis added). Nothing could be clearer: negotiations for a ceasefire would begin after the Taliban prisoners are released.
There is reason, even if not justification, for Ghani’s obstructionist behavior. He knows that as the situation evolves and talks begin, he will be sidelined. The Taliban have repeatedly stated that they do not recognize the Kabul regime, calling it a US puppet. The same goes for Afghanistan’s constitution; it is an American construct. They insist that Afghanistan would be an Islamic Emirate although they are prepared to accommodate other parties in their proposed future set-up.
A spokesman for the Afghan government claimed that the term “intra-Afghan” negotiations was inaccurate. Talks would be held between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The latter immediately shot back.
“The Islamic Emirate does not recognize the Kabul administration as a government but views it as western imported structure working for the continuation of American occupation.
“We only accept and have made preparations for negotiations that were described in the historic Doha agreement and those are intra-Afghan negotiations that cover all parties to the Afghan conflict.”
The talks were scheduled to begin last March following the February 29 US-Afghan deal. This, however, was contingent on the release of all prisoners. The US-Nato troops had captured 5,000 Taliban prisoners that were handed over to the Kabul regime to bolster its tenuous authority. The Taliban had captured 1,000 Afghan security personnel.
Immediately after the US-Taliban deal, Ghani claimed that he was not party to the deal—the Taliban had adamantly refused to allow any participation of Kabul regime representatives—so he was not obliged to follow its terms. The Americans were able to slap him back into reality.
After much delay, the Ghani regime released all but 400 Taliban prisoners alleging they were “hardened criminals” and would pose a threat to US-Nato troops. He has even tried to scare the Europeans by alleging that if released, the Taliban prisoners would pose a direct threat to Europe.
Ghani’s tantrums were causing annoyance in Washington. Donald Trump, the beleaguered US president, is desperate to get troops out of Afghanistan before the November 3 elections. Nato troops would also go. Both the US and Nato have 8,600 troops each in Afghanistan.
For Trump, the troop withdrawal would be one achievement of his regime amid a dismal record of mass unemployment caused by COVID-19. He has mismanaged the pandemic and the US economy has tanked. Americans are also deeply divided over the issue of race and police brutality.
Trump’s overriding concern is his own political survival, not the well-being of some puppet in a distant war-torn country. If he loses the election, Trump is likely to go straight from the White House to the doghouse in handcuffs, unless of course his successor pardons him. This cannot be ruled out either.
There is at present far greater convergence of views between the Taliban and the US. Ghani is merely getting in the way.
The Taliban are already conducting themselves as a government. Their political delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar held talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad on August 25. The aim was to remove the hurdles that have stymied intra-Afghan negotiations.
After meeting the Taliban delegation, Qureshi said, “I’m optimistic of progress in the near future despite problems and the presence of spoilers. Hopefully a way out would be found.”
One hopes so, not only for the long-suffering Afghans but the hundreds of millions of people in the region.