• The Star Staff

Afghan leader digs in on peace talks despite progress, officials say


By Thomas Gibbons-Neff


President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has refused to let peace talks move forward even though the Taliban and government negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on the talks’ guiding principles, Afghan officials say, further stalling the process despite nearing an apparent breakthrough after months of effort.


The Taliban exposed those fault lines Saturday when the insurgent group announced on social media that both sides had agreed to the nearly two dozen points under discussion this month — a framework for how talks would go forward, including points of protocol and how issues would be presented.


But some government officials immediately pushed back on that claim, insisting that details still needed to be worked out and that no agreement had been reached. They say the Taliban were pressured by Western officials to signal a breakthrough.


Three Afghan officials with knowledge of the talks said that Ghani took exception to at least one detail, insisting that the government side be referred to by its formal name, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, rather than by a more generic reference.


Aides to Ghani did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the issue on Sunday.


Such details have broken down efforts to negotiate before. The Taliban’s past insistence on being referred to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name of their government when they were in power — derailed an effort at talks in 2013 and was a sticking point in the talks between the United States and the Taliban that eventually led to a deal opening the way for a troop withdrawal, officials said.


That the Taliban were not sticking to that title in the guiding framework this month — agreeing to less specific references to the government and insurgent sides, and to other more central points of contention — was seen as an important accomplishment.


Now, the talks have been cast into further doubt by Ghani’s demand, officials and analysts said.


“At this stage the whole process has shifted to both sides’ convincing an international audience that the other side is disingenuous,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an independent Afghan research analyst. “But long term, it could strengthen the hand of those within the Taliban that advocate for a military solution and view the current process as fruitless.”


American and Western diplomatic officials have not publicly responded to the breakdown. But people with direct knowledge of the talks in Doha, Qatar, have described diplomats as being exasperated with Ghani’s stance, and have suggested that the government negotiating team has been functionally split between loyalists to Ghani and other officials who are frustrated with him.


The introductory talks, which opened in hope and spectacle in Qatar in September, have unfolded over months of brutal violence back in Afghanistan. The Taliban have intensified their offensives in crucial provinces, leading the government to accuse the insurgents of holding the talks hostage with their violence.


On Sunday, a stolen Humvee laden with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber rammed into an Afghan military base in Ghazni province, killing at least 30 security force members, government officials said.


There may be other crucial reasons that Ghani and his aides are digging in, as well.

If Ghani accepts the text that refuses to mention the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan “he opens the door for the nonrecognition of the Afghan republic,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan presidential adviser. “President Ghani has resisted this concept from the start because there is no guarantee that he would remain president otherwise.”


Ghani may also see the delay as a calculated move in the hope that the incoming Biden administration might either change course on the continuing U.S. troop withdrawal or alter its approach to overseeing the peace negotiations. Under the Trump administration, Afghan officials complained that they were being heavily pressured by the Americans to accept painful compromises.


Both sides had agreed to a guiding document’s outline for the talks this month, according to the officials with knowledge of the talks.


The agreement, mediated by members of the Qatari, Pakistani and U.S. governments, resolved two contentious issues, the officials said: Both sides were stuck on which school of Islamic thought to use for resolving disputes, and on whether the Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal would be referenced as a basis for the continuing negotiations.


One of the hangups was over a reference to the Hanafi school of Islamic thought, one of the four major Sunni schools, which is also the foundation of the current Afghan Constitution, the officials said. Initially, the two sides were at odds on a formulation that does not alienate other sects, particularly Afghanistan’s Shiite minority. The officials said that dispute was resolved in favor of the Afghan government’s approach.


The second point was the inclusion of the Feb. 29 agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. government as a basis for the current talks, officials said. The February agreement prompted the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in exchange for counterterrorism pledges from the Taliban and the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners.


The Afghan government balked at the inclusion of the February deal as a starting point, as the government was not a party to that agreement. To resolve the issue, the deal is mentioned, but the guidelines also included references to at least one other framing document, the officials said.

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