Half Yearly Review

Afghanistan: Stalled Peace Negotiations

22 Aug, 2013    ·   4095

Mayank S Bubna comments as part of the IPCS Database on Peace and Conflict in South Asia

The first half of 2013 proved to be ‘old hat’ for Afghanistan in five major domain areas: the lack of substantive progress on a bilateral security arrangement with the US, set backs to peace negotiations, an uncertain security transition, problems besetting prison handovers and unresolved election woes.

Bilateral Security Arrangement (BSA) with the US
The biggest issue of contention in the BSA remains the conditions under which American soldiers will stay in Afghanistan after 2014. The Afghans, in turn, have looked to the US to provide a security buffer against militant infiltration from neighbouring Pakistan and to help train the ANSF. The Afghan government has repeatedly stressed the need for peace and stability and accountable military operations, with which the American government agrees only in principle. President Karzai met with President Obama in January 2013, and the two presidents agreed that a treaty on security was necessary as soon as possible.

On 14 January, President Karzai said that the decision on immunity for foreign troops would be relegated to a Loya Jirga, warning also that signing the BSA would be unlikely if other bilateral commitments remain unenforced. On 8 February, the State Department announced that the third round of negotiations on the BSA had been constructive and that they expected to complete talks by the scheduled November deadline. Yet, later that month, the US government refused to provide a security guarantee to Kabul in the event of aggression by Pakistan. Furthermore, the US sought to establish permanent military bases, which although earlier would have been considered a deal breaker, was approved by President Karzai in May on the condition that the BSA is signed first.

Secret talks between the US and the Taliban led to the suspension of the BSA on 19 June – a decision taken by President Karzai and one which even a call from Secretary of State John Kerry could not immediately reverse. It is expected however, that this decision will soon be reversed given President Karzai’s mercurial nature in international diplomacy, and the necessity to reach some agreement prior to 2014.

Doha Office and Peace Negotiations
Closely linked to the BSA are the stalled peace negotiations between the Afghan government, the Taliban and the US government. The three major players have been involved in isolated and secret negotiations with each other, which has been detrimental for cohesive consensus on the way forward with peace negotiations. Central to these discussions have been issues revolving around the opening of a political office in Doha, Qatar, for the Taliban.

In early January this year, the Afghan government laid out three preconditions to agreeing to an office for the Taliban. The plan asked the Taliban to (i) negotiate directly with the government and involve no intermediaries (ii) clearly identify their representatives (iii) give the Afghan government the right to close the office when it deems fit. The US government, in attempting to deal directly with the Taliban, bypassed the High Peace Council, much to the ire of Afghan government officials. On at least two occasions in January and in March, President Karzai accused ‘third country nationals’ of plotting against the peace process by leaving the Afghan government out of it, although he did not name names. Other times, he has been more blatant in his criticism. On 11 March, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with President Karzai to reassure him that the US was not engaged in any back-channel dialogue with the Taliban – a story that President Karzai refused to acknowledge as authentic as evidenced by his comments the very next day when, in a press conference, he publicly accused the Taliban of being at the service of the US government.

Despite these public confrontations, Afghan and American government officials are known to be secretly working together to iron out details of the pact. But they are not alone. On 18 March, Afghan opposition political groups also opened direct dialogue with the Taliban and other Islamist groups, adding to the number of simultaneous dialogues taking place. Similarly, around mid-April, Wolesi Jirga MPs voted to create a special commission to deal with armed groups. Other internationals such as the British government, Iran and Pakistan are also known to have had direct contact with the Taliban.

Amidst disagreements and misunderstandings between the Afghan and US governments, neither party is entirely certain about the Taliban’s own sincerity or commitment to peace. There have been some reports about low level and moderate Taliban joining the reconciliation process, but it is yet unknown whether this is a systematic, strategic move by the Taliban to renounce violence and seek a political solution to peace. Around mid-June, the Taliban decided to open a political office in Doha – a move that was welcomed by American officials who believed that it would finally break the 18-month impasse in negotiations. But the Afghan government ended up disengaging itself immediately from what to them seemed like a Taliban publicity stunt. The Taliban attempt to showcase their own personal flag and banner in the highly publicised event portrayed the group as an alternative to the Afghan government, as a result of which Afghan government officials felt deceived. The Doha office was closed within a day of its inauguration, stalling the already-shaky peace talks.

Security Transition
Alongside the political process has been a messy security transition that remains fraught with uncertainty and predicaments. Given that an agreement on the BSA remains undecided, reports emerged in early January that the US would consider the ‘zero option, ie a full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Deputy National Security AdvisorBen Rhodes’ comment that the zero option would be a viable option on the table was met with alarm and dread among Afghan politicians that the country would relapse into civil war. Yet, there remains no consensus on troop presence after 2014 with different numbers being concocted at different times. In February, NATO announced that it would leave 12,000 troops in the post-transition phase – a number that Joe Biden first rejected and later accepted. In early March, a US General recommended leaving 13,600 troops after 2014 to assist local forces to take control of security. On 6 March, President Karzai announced that countries willing to keep forces in Afghanistan after 2014 would need to sign individual agreements with the administration.

Meanwhile, the ANSF has been struggling to maintain law and order in the country. According to one report put out by the Interior Ministry in January, the Afghan police had been losing up to 15 men to security incidents every day. Around mid-March, the MoI announced that casualty figures among police was up 15 per cent as compared to the previous year. Over 3,600 attacks had been carried out against police forces; a 13 per cent increase from the previous year. Unable to protect civilians, they are also facing a recruitment problem and lack of military support. On 23 January, the British government reported that the Taliban have killed 1,100 members of the Afghan security forces in the previous 6 months. Philip Hammond, British Defense Secretary, admitted that there had been a doubling of casualties among Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) over the past year, as well as spikes in desertion rates from the army.The ANA comprised of 195,000 soldiers as of mid-March, but needed to increase to over 250,000 to effectively do their work.

Several countries have already begun pulling out their respective forces and handing over military bases to their Afghan counterparts. On 26 March, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said his country planned to hand over its main military base in TirinKot, the centre of Uruzgan province, and withdraw most troops from the country by the end of the year. He added that at least 1,000 troops would return to Australia and any remaining would be based in Kabul or Kandahar. Australia has about 1,500 soldiers in the country. On 30 March, Afghan National Army commandos took over a base of the US Special Forces in the Nirkh district of Maidan Wardak province. On 19 April, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziereannounced that his country had proposed to deploy roughly 600 to 800 troops in Afghanistan for a two-year period starting 2015. Maiziere went on to say that after the two-year mandate, Germany would be ready to station between 200 to 300 forces in Afghanistan’s capital city to provide training and logistics support to the Afghan army. The Germans also pledged to take responsibility of the police training centres they have built across Afghanistan. In mid-May, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK will withdraw almost half of the country's 9,000 troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

A watershed moment occurred on 18 June, when for the first time since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, NATO forces stepped back and allowed Afghan forces to take the lead in security matters across the entire country. In a ceremonial hand-off, ISAF passed the security baton for the remaining 95 districts of a security transition process that began in 2011. NATO forces are expected to pull out in a gradual decline of troop presence over the next 18 months. During this time, they will serve only in an advisory and training capacity. Afghan security forces’ ranks have increased steadily over the years from 40,000 six years ago to about 350,000 as of June 2013. The decision came immediately after a joint NATO-Afghan transition board agreed two days earlier that Afghan forces were ready to take over security responsibilities in all of Afghanistan.

Prisoner Release
The handover of prisons and the release of security detainees have often been used as a political bargaining chip among the Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis. In early January, The New York Times reported the release of 80 prisoners deliberately designed as a show of Afghan sovereignty prior to President Karzai’s visit to the US. The US military has often stopped the transfer of detainees to Afghan hands because of allegations of torture. Mistreatment of prisoners including genital twisting, electric shocks, beatings with pipes, threats of execution and rape were reported in a UN study released on 20 January. On 9 February, the US resumed transfer of inmates held at the controversial Bagram jail in central Parwan province to Afghan control in a special ceremony slated during the week.

In early March, President Karzai announced that complete control of Bagram jail should be handed over to Afghan custody and that innocent prisoners with no proven guilt would be immediately released. The transfer of control was delayed when disagreements regarding foreign inmates and continued imprisonment of particularly threatening individuals in Bagram surfaced and were unresolved. As of mid-June Afghan officials have released 2,156 prisoners ever since it was given partial custody in November 2012.

In the interim, Pakistan and Afghanistan have also had their share of prisoner exchanges. In February, approximately 30 prisoners were released by Pakistan in what they called a goodwill measure to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Afghan officials raised concerns during talks with David Cameron of the UK that their release failed to help the embryonic peace process, and that most released prisoners’ whereabouts were unknown, with the likelihood that they had rejoined the fight. In the same month, a number of Afghan lawyers began trying to secure the release of Afghan prisoners in Pakistani jails. Some high-value detainees were not permitted extradition to Afghanistan.

Concerns remain about the Afghan government’s ability to deliver on its election promises. In January, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that it had adopted a new voter registration plan for presidential and provincial council polls, accepting both old voting cards as well as computerised identity cards.  The plan was approved after a series of consultative meetings with stakeholders, including mainstream political parties and civil society organisations over several months. The Deputy Interior Minister Mirza Mohammad Yarmand also announced in February that up to 14 million Afghan citizens would be issued computerised national identity cards within one year. Mr Yarman told a press conference thatthis process would initially commence in March at 54 registration centers in Kabul and then expand to zones and central provinces. The process was delayed until April, and little hope exists for registering and issuing ID cards to Afghans on time.

In the interim, Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar offered the Kabul government a two-point proposal for his group's participation in the 2014 presidential election. In an interview in January with a local private TV channel, Hekmatyar said that they would field a presidential candidate if their demands – a complete pull out of foreign troops and vote transparency – were endorsed. He condemned as unfair the electoral policy claiming it was being imposed on Afghans. When asked about legal immunity for US forces beyond 2014, he said that if it happened then HIA would have no choice but to continue its armed struggle. In April, HIA confirmed that they would present a candidate – either from its own ranks or support an outsider – for the upcoming elections. The party's Deputy Chief Ghairat Bashir said that a delegation of four senior party figures was in Kabul meeting local members to discuss possible presidential candidates. HIA called for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan, saying that a proper election was not possible with them in the country.

While HIA’s participation was welcomed, most political analysts still believe it is Taliban that need to be coopted. In April, President Karzai told a German newspaper that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar could run for the presidency in the elections next year on the condition that the group broke ties with al Qaeda and renounced violence.