South Asia

Interview | Taliban's Military 'Reverses' Could Increase Possibility of Intra-Afghan Talks: Daudzai

In conversation with Mohammad Umer Daudzai, the secretary to the High Peace Council and Afghan president’s special envoy on peace.

New Delhi: After six rounds of talks between the US and Taliban, there are still no signs of the insurgent group agreeing to direct talks with the Afghan government. However, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, the secretary to the High Peace Council and Afghan president’s special envoy on peace, believes that recent setbacks on the battlefield could lead to “meaningful dialogue” between the two Afghan sides.

Daudzai, a former minister of interior and ambassador to Iran and Pakistan, held talks with India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, where they discussed the Afghan peace process and recent regional developments. He also gave a speech at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). Later, he spoke separately to a select group of Indian media persons.

Recently, the US has decided to stop issuing regular assessments of the extent of the Taliban’s control of territory. The last report of the American special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) to publish this assessment of Taliban control of territory was released in January this year. It stated that till October 31, 2018, the Afghan government’s control was over 53.8% of districts and 63.5% of the population.

However, Daudzai has claimed that the Afghan security forces have stopped the Taliban from gaining ground this year since the end of winter. This was in contrast to previous years when the onset of spring also heralded the fall of more districts to Taliban control.

This lack of military success this year by Taliban, Daudzai believes, could cause the insurgent groups to finally concede the need to start intra-Afghan talks.

Here is an edited transcript of the interaction, during which he talked about the role being played by the US’s special envoy for Afghan peace talks, ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and regional countries:

National Security Advisor (Hamdullah) Mohib had been very critical of ambassador Khalilzad. But you seem to be more positive about his role. What is your assessment of his task in the peace process?

Well, Khalilzad is a representative of the US government and takes instructions from the US foreign office. Ambassador Mohib was right in his complaint because at that time, ambassador Khalilzad was sharing information to a level that was not satisfactory to the Afghan government. After that issue was raised, the level of information sharing has increased.

US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Credit: Reuters

What information was he not sharing with the Afghan government?

That we don’t know, because we were not present when they are talking to the Taliban. But when the fifth round of talks concluded, he (Khalilzad) went back to the US, in contrast to previous rounds when he used to first debrief the Kabul government. That was a stage when there were other political activities going on inside the country in which ambassador Khalilzad probably wanted to be neutral and was interacting with more political figures outside the government and then inside the government. That’s why ambassador Mohib raised that concern.

Also read: A Taliban Perspective on Recent Peace Talks for Afghanistan

But if this matter was raised, there must be some apprehension about the nature of the information that was not shared. What did you suspect?

There was some kind of confusion. Let me give you an example. They (the US) said that they have reached an understanding that the Taliban would give a guarantee that the Afghan soil would not be used against the third party. That’s not the right language. That’s not the language acceptable to us, because that means that the Taliban is in control of Afghanistan.

Whenever the final agreement is reached, the Taliban will have to join the rest of the country, not take over the country. So, in terms of words using the correct language, there were differences of opinion.

We were worried about what’s going on, what are they discussing… We hear it differently (from them). From the public, from media, we hear a different story. From Taliban, we hear a different story. After ambassador Mohib raised questions, the clarification came, so it had an outcome, a positive outcome.

What are now the minimum red lines in a peace agreement with the Taliban?

The Loya Jirga that was held recently gave guidance to the state and provided a framework for talks with the Taliban. It set limits to the concession that can be given in terms of peace. For example, having the word ‘republic’ in the name of the country. That’s very important for the people of Afghanistan. That is a red line. And the constitution itself says that this cannot be negotiated. So, the Loya Jirga specified that.

Then we wanted to make sure that women had a credible significant voice. We fixed that at 30%.

The outcome of the Loya Jirga in the final communique clearly said that the achievements of the past 18 years have to be preserved. Among the most significant achievements has been the freedom of speech and freedom of women to study and to exercise political rights.

The government would have to take the cues for red lines from the Loya Jirga declaration.

Given that the Taliban has a certain rigid ideology and profile which doesn’t inspire much confidence, do you really see the possibility of a power-sharing of any kind with the Taliban?

Until a year ago, before the Doha-Qatar talks, what we were hearing indirectly from the Taliban was that they were not talking of bringing back an Islamic Emirate again in Afghanistan. Which means, they wanted to be a part of the system. Since then, their political profile went up, their appetite increased, so they are using a different language.

We are focussing on strengthening state institutions. Stronger the state institutions become, the more the Taliban will have to concede.

Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Parwiz

Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted on May 4 that all sides will have to lay down arms and reduce violence. Did he mean the Afghan security forces? Have you asked for a clarification from him?

No, he doesn’t mean Afghan official forces. All sides mean the Taliban and other armed groups in Pakistan. Some are international terrorist groups that have to be wiped out by force. There are irresponsibly armed groups that are remnants of the war of the 80s and 90s.

The understanding between us, the US and the rest of our partners is that after the peace deal, there has to be disarmament and only the ANDSF will remain as an armed force in Afghanistan. Everybody else will have to be disarmed, including the Taliban.

Also read: Will an Imposed Peace End All Peace in Afghanistan?

I don’t think the Taliban has a problem with that. The problem is elsewhere. When their profile goes up, their appetite for taking the whole pie increases. When their profile goes down, then they agree that what do u give us.

In your speech (at the ICWA), you had mentioned that the Taliban has not made any conquests of territory this year after spring. Has this resulted in any change in their negotiating posture?

They have not made any gains on the battlefield. Therefore, their position should be weakened. If you look at the US statement after the sixth round of talks, he said that the devil is in the detail. That means when they went into details, they disagreed. That would not have been the case if the US had wanted to give more concession, because the Taliban had made advances.

I think the Taliban has made reverses this spring. Last year this time, three provinces were under pressure. This year, there are no provinces under pressure, no district of importance under pressure, rather the Taliban-controlled territory is under pressure.

We have broken so many of their prisons and released Afghans that they had captured. You would imagine that these prisons would be deep inside their territory. That means that our forces were able to sneak in deep into their so-called territory. In the battlefield, they are not in a position of strength anymore and if everything goes as it is now, I don’t think they will return to their position of strength.

Now, the US president says that he wants to end the war and he wants it to be done in haste. It’s his right. We have to take it from there. We have to react to scenarios that we can’t change and we have to find alternatives.

Can these military ‘setbacks’ hasten the Taliban to the table for intra-Afghan talks?

The Taliban’s reverses will enhance the possibility of coming to meaningful negotiation.

The Loya Jirga was boycotted by ten presidential candidates. How do you address the question of apparent disunity in Afghan polity?

In every democratic setup, you have position and opposition. Our position is president and CEO. They are very much unified on all issues related to the peace process, whether it is Moscow or Qatar. The list that was put together for Qatar was from Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah. President Karzai had gathered what you call the opposition. Though, formally, we don’t have an opposition. They went to Moscow and met with the Taliban. Basically, you can say that the Moscow meeting was between the armed opposition of the government and the political opposition of the government. This is natural. This can happen.

With respect to Loya Jirga and presidential candidate – presidential candidates were not invited to Loya Jirga as they don’t have any legal status. They are not yet even formal candidates. If there are any instances to invite them, then we will have to invite all of them. We couldn’t invite one or two and leave the rest.

Dr Abdullah did not also participate. There was a technical complaint. We wanted to fix it, but we didn’t have much time… But he is not against Loya Jirga. He accepts it.

None of the Loya Jirga members were critical of Dr Abdullah, because they understood (his absence). But they were critical of other politicians who didn’t participate.

We have two mechanisms right now. One is the Leadership Council for Reconciliation. This is basically to build consensus for peace among the top layer of politicians. It has started, but not complete as some boycotted for political reason. And the Loya Jirga was developing consensus at the grassroots level. We brought grassroots level leaders from districts, provinces, from different parts of civil society. At that level, it was successful.

Participation by senior politicians is important at Loya Jirga, but if due to political reasons, they don’t attend, that’s their choice.

During the Loya Jirga, some of the politicians who boycotted it, encouraged their supporters in the meeting to walk out. But they said, ‘No, this is important for my country’.

Mohammad Umer Daudzai. Credit: Twitter

I want to ask a broader question on regional politics. There are so many international players involved in the Afghan peace process. Has geopolitical rivalry between Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia-UAE or the US and Russia made your job more difficult?

It certainly increases the challenge. There is an international will to end the war. On paper, all countries are on the same page. But the ground reality is that it is a bit difficult. That’s why Khalilzad is going around and I am also going around because he has his limitations and I have my limitations – and we complement it.

What are these limitations?

My limitation is that certain countries within the region may not take us as seriously as they would Americans. Other countries take us more seriously than Americans. The way we can talk to Iran, the Americans can’t talk to them. With India, they can talk and we can talk. But with Pakistan, Americans talk a different language and we talk a different language.

We talk (to Pakistan) from the point of view of the neighbourhood and shared values. While the US talks from the view of Pakistan’s urgent need for an economic bailout. So that’s how we are complementing each other, meeting each other’s shortcomings.

In order to reach a positive outcome, we need an international will, regional coordination and national consensus. A national consensus is there – Loya Jirga is good proof of that. But regional coordination is a challenge.

Have you seen any instances of rival regional countries trying to undercut each other (in the Afghan peace process)?

Yes, Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to host, but Qatar took it over. I don’t think the peace process is impacted, as they are kept informed. Those countries that are not getting along, they are kept informed. According to our knowledge, Saudis are not working against the Qatar process.

Also read: What Will Happen After the US Withdraws From Afghanistan?

I am talking of steps taken by countries when they feel that they are not having any role. For example, Tehran’s first formal invite to a Taliban delegation took place after the Abu Dhabi talks.

And when the process moved to Qatar, they were calmer. These are the rules of the game. We have to live with it.

Are you worried about the impact of the gathering war clouds due to tensions between the US and Iran?

We are concerned, but not severely concerned. We are more worried are we are dependent on trade with Iran. Three-four years ago, our trade with Pakistan was touching $5 billion a year, but now it has switched to Iran. With Iran, it is touching $4 billion and with Pakistan, it has dropped to $1 billion. More Iran comes under pressure (from the US), our trade transiting through Iran will be affected. Iran’s Chabahar is our gateway to India. Collectively, we want to convince Americans to give us an exception in using Iran.

The US has given exception from its sanctions on the development of Chabahar. Is that not enough?

They did say that we could re-export to Iran. We could export something from a third party and send it to Iran. But we are land-locked, so we have to bring it through Chabahar and re-export it to Iran. So there are practical difficulties there that need to be sorted out. What we are sure is that Americans are having a sympathetic view about Indian and Afghan needs to use Chabahar.

What’s your assessment of China’s role in the peace process?

China has two major concerns. One is ETIM, which was in Waziristan and after operation Zarb-e-Azab was pushed to Afghanistan. Now they are based somewhere close to China in Badakhshan Province or in that region. China is concerned about that and we are engaged with them in terms of intelligence and provision of non-lethal assets for the Afghan army. So, it is a positive role.

Unlike Russia, China is not taking the position that ETIM is the enemy, so I should help the Taliban curb ETIM. Russia says that since they are afraid of ISIS, let’s help the Taliban to take care of ISIS. That’s the wrong policy. China has the right policy to help the Afghan state to prevent the ETIM be a threat.

They also have an economic agenda. Their Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC – these can’t be implemented unless there is stability and sustainable security. And we know, China has been encouraging Pakistan to get to a peace settlement. We are satisfied with the level of engagement with China.

With Pakistan, our relationship, your relationship, fluctuates. Sometimes one government comes and says that I will fix all the wrongdoings of my predecessor. You wait for four years and it is not fixed. Then another government comes and says their predecessor did everything wrong. We hope somewhere down the line, the problem is fixed. Then we all live in peace and harmony.

When you have Prime Minister Imran Khan make a statement that we are going to get a government in Kabul who will work with us, that’s not helpful.

It was misleading. I think he learnt his lesson. He has taken it back. He faced a very strong reaction in social media in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan. And his last statement was that I am not going to give any advice to my Afghan brothers.

Also read: India, US Agree That ‘Gains of Last 18 Years’ Must Be ‘Preserved’ in Afghanistan

During your speech, you had appreciated the state of India-Afghanistan relations. But you also suggested that there was scope for greater communication, “note sharing” as you called it. What did you mean by that?

Let’s say that the Moscow process will be repeated in Beijing, we may not be there and India may be there. Where we may be there, but India may not be there, we need to share notes. We need India’s advice and support also. Say, we are talking on a serious matter with the US. Though the US is our partner, we may not be as important a partner for the US as India is. If two of us together speak the same language with the US, then the chances of them accepting our position are much higher.

India has been warning that an interim government outside the constitutional structure should not be envisioned. Do you agree with that?

Well, two different things. On the issue of an interim government with respect to May 22, we agree. Constitutional process is responsive enough.

But when we reach a final peace agreement, which might be years away, then that would require some kind of inclusive administration. Why should we talk of that while we are not even close to it?

Also, the constitution has its own way of reforming itself. India and Afghanistan also agree that the constitutional line should be followed even when we are going for its amendment. the constitution cannot be amended or modified through the non-constitutional process.

So the bottom line for the two countries is that we stick to the constitution and it is very much responsive to the situation.