While both the Afghan government and the Taliban have said they will not publicly release their lists of priorities for the next round of negotiations, here is what security analysts, researchers, and government and Taliban officials expect — and what hurdles these talks must overcome.

What are the end goals of these talks?

The ultimate goal is the creation of a political road map for a future government. The head of the government negotiation team, Masoom Stanikzai, said this week that a cease-fire would be the delegation’s top priority. The Taliban, who have used attacks against security forces and civilians as leverage, seek to negotiate a form of governance based on strict Islamic law.

But getting to these fundamental issues will not be easy, as the two sides remain stuck on the meaning of terms such as “cease-fire” and “Islamic.” There are many forms of cease-fire, from permanent to partial and conditional, yet the public portion of the February agreement between the United States and the Taliban calling for the complete withdrawal of US troops does not define what it should look like.

The Taliban also refuse to specify what they mean by “Islamic,” and the government’s own insistence on an “Islamic” republic has been a subject of intense debate.

Afghan security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Afghan security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. Credit:AP

Also complicating the next round of talks is a Taliban demand that the government release more Taliban prisoners. The government’s release of more than 5,000 prisoners removed the last obstacle to negotiations in September, but President Ashraf Ghani has thus far refused to release any others.

Where does the fighting stand?

Both sides exploited violence on the ground in Afghanistan for leverage during negotiations in Doha, but the Taliban have been more aggressive than the government.

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The killing of security force members and civilians surged while talks were underway, before subsiding once Afghan government and Taliban negotiators announced in early December that they had reached an agreement on future talks, though cold weather likely also contributed. At least 429 pro-government forces were killed in September, and at least 212 civilians were killed in October — the worst tolls in each category in more than a year.

“Killing and bloodshed have reached new peaks,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a military analyst in Kabul. “What kind of will for peace is this?”

What role is the US playing right now?

Although the Taliban have greatly reduced direct attacks on US forces since February, the insurgent group has inexorably expanded the territory it controls by besieging local security forces.

US airstrikes salvaged the crumpling defences of Afghan units in Kandahar and Helmand provinces this Autumn, exposing, once more, deficiencies in Afghan ground and air forces that are under constant attack. The forces’ slumping morale has drawn increasing concern from General Austin Miller, commander of the US-led mission in the country.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, left, talks with General Scott Miller, the commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Wednesday, December 16, 2020.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, left, talks with General Scott Miller, the commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Wednesday, December 16, 2020.Credit:AP

At the same time, U.S. troop numbers have dropped from about 12,000 in February to a projected 2,500 by mid-January, with a complete withdrawal planned by May if the agreement holds.

Both sides are also waiting to see whether President-elect Joe Biden will honour the troop withdrawal schedule or, conceivably, move to renegotiate the entire deal.

What other obstacles could stall the negotiations?

Given the recriminations and suspicions in Doha, some Afghan analysts fear the talks could remain deadlocked for months.

That could indefinitely delay serious attempts to address core concerns such as human rights, a free press, rights for women and religious minorities, and democratic elections.

The Taliban say they support women's rights but only according to strict Islamic law.

The Taliban say they support women’s rights but only according to strict Islamic law. Credit:AP

Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights, for example, but only under strict Islamic law. Many analysts interpret that to mean the same harsh oppression of women practiced by the Taliban when they governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Another complication is division within the Taliban, from hard-line commanders in Afghanistan to political negotiators in Doha’s hotels. Some Taliban factions believe they should fight and defeat the Americans and the Afghan government, not negotiate with them.

The New York Times

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