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Afghan government begins talks with the Taliban

KABUL—The Afghan government is due to begin peace talks with representatives of the Taliban today but some officials are worried that the United States is pushing too hard for an agreement ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Last week the government convened a loya jirga, a mass gathering of representatives from across the country that decides on issues of national importance. The group agreed to the release of 400 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails, paving the way for the talks with the Taliban.

The government has described the prisoners as among the most dangerous and high-value Taliban captives currently held.

“In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the loya jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban,” the jirga’s decision read.

The attendees said they were not given the names or details of the prisoners, prompting speculation that some might be foreign fighters. Many Afghans have long accused the Taliban of employing foreigners, namely Pakistani nationals, as part of their insurgency. It was not immediately clear how such non-Afghans would be repatriated and prevented from returning to the country.

Muin Gul Samkanai, of the Rights and Justice party, said the lack of details about these prisoners seemed suspicious. According to some reports, the list includes the alleged planners of a 2017 truck bomb in Kabul that killed more than 150 people.

“The only reason they would gather 3,000 people [for the loya jirga] and not name a single prisoner is that there were foreign nationals among them. That’s the only thing that makes sense,” Samkanai said.

The Presidential Palace has denied the presence of foreign fighters among the 400.

Nilofar Ibrahimi, a parliamentarian from the Northern province of Badakhshan, who was part of the planning committee for two recent loya jirgas, said the delegates were never provided with any details about the prisoners in question.

She said she feared that the Trump administration, in a rush to declare victory in Afghanistan ahead of the November U.S. election, was using its political and economic might to force the issue.

“It’s obvious there was pressure on the government to hold this jirga, what I want to know is what exactly that pressure was?”

Ibrahimi said that the entire peace process, which has so far excluded the Afghan government, highlights the power imbalance between Kabul and Washington, which signed an armistice with the Taliban in February.

“Rather than state-to-state discussions, the whole process has been about putting pressure on the Afghan government.”

In response to reports of video conversations between Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Mullah Baradar Akhund, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Ibrahimi said she was worried that the United States was giving an armed group actively fighting the Afghan government the legitimacy of a state.

A source familiar with the Taliban position said the talks, slated to begin today, would  likely be drawn-out with potential hitches and stalemates.

“The first hurdle will appear right away. The government’s initial point of order will be declaring a nation-wide ceasefire, but the Taliban’s primary focus will be on the structure of a future Afghan government,” said the source, who asked for anonymity.

Several analysts said the Taliban fears being neutralized or sidelined in any future government.

“The Taliban don’t want to become like the old jihadi factions and made useless. They can’t lose their religious dignity in this deal,” said Obaid Ali, a Kabul-based analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Adding to this fear for the Taliban is the continued existence of fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. Ali said the Taliban is fighting the Islamic State across Afghanistan in part to ensure that the country would be free of insurgencies once a peace deal is reached.

“Taliban attacks on the IS forces are meant to send a clear signal, ‘After us, there will be no more militant groups to take our place.’”

Ali said the Taliban had gained much diplomatic experience over the past 18 months, which helped the group forge relations with Western powers and regional neighbors.

“Every day, their office in Doha has five to 10 meetings with representatives from different nations. They’ve learned how to speak to dignitaries, how to negotiate.”

But the Taliban’s ability to draw these nations close has caused concern for Kabul—especially among Afghans who have taken part in previous meetings with the Taliban over the years. Ibrahimi, the parliament member from Badakhshan, said the Taliban have always presented a united front, while the Afghans in attendance seemed to be much more divided.

“In the past, the Taliban would come with a list of very specific points and they would never veer from them, whereas the Afghans all seemed to be speaking for themselves,” said Ibrahimi, who took part in at least one such meeting and was briefed on others.

Ibrahimi said this fear was the reason the loya jirga included along with their approval of the prisoner release specific recommendations that foreign nationals be immediately repatriated to their own country, that a nation-wide ceasefire be prioritized as part of the talks with the Taliban and that the current democratic structure of the nation be preserved in any peace agreement.

While Taliban negotiators appear to be coordinating closely with their leadership council in Pakistan, the Afghan government’s diplomacy has been more chaotic.

The Afghan government currently has three bodies tasked with peace efforts: the High Peace Council, a semi-autonomous group created by former President Hamid Karzai, the State Ministry for Peace, currently headed by a former chief of staff to President Ashraf Ghani, and the High Council for National Reconciliation, which is led by Ghani’s long-time political rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

“The hierarchies, the makeups and agendas of these bodies is not entirely clear to the Afghan people. That could present a major challenge when sitting across from a more experienced and organized Taliban in Doha,” said Ali.

The Taliban had first sought negotiations with Washington after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the Bush administration refused. It wasn’t until late into President Barack Obama’s first term in 2012 for when the Taliban sent representatives to Qatar talks with U.S. representatives.

While the Taliban has been honing its diplomatic skills, the Afghan government has been increasingly distracted by the escalating war and corruption allegations.

As a result, many Afghans are skeptical that talks between the two sides will bring peace after four decades of violence.

“Even if peace comes, I’m afraid it won’t last,” said Ibrahimi, the parliament member.

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