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What promise do Doha talks hold for Afghanistan?

June 24, 2024 8:41 am

Taliban regime’s decision to take part in UN-led dialogue comes at the cost of leaving crucial issues, such as women and regional security, off the table.
Taliban regime’s decision to take part in UN-led dialogue comes at the cost of leaving crucial issues, such as women and regional security, off the table.

After months of disengagement with international actors on multilateral fora, the Afghan Taliban’s decision to participate in the UN-sponsored Doha-III meeting of Special Envoys — scheduled to be held at the end of this month — denotes significant diplomatic progress in bringing the Kabul government back to the table on a host of issues, even if it does leave out mention of key issues, such as regional security and women’s rights.

The talks that begin on Jun 30 mark the first time the incumbent rulers in Kabul will attend a gathering of international envoys on Afghanistan since UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres started the process in May 2023, aimed at developing a coherent and unified world approach to engagement with the Taliban.

The meeting will discuss the path forward on the independent assessment on Afghanistan, mandated by Resolution 2679, which calls for an independent assessment of the situation in the country.

The Taliban boycotted the second Doha meeting in February of this year, while they were not invited to the first meeting, held in May last year.

Last week, Afghan Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi had confirmed that after discussing the agenda and list of participants, it was decided in principle that Kabul would participate in the meeting.

Another Afghan official said that his government responded positively to the UN invitation as there was nothing controversial on the agenda.

No mention of women

This is no doubt a reference to the absence of Afghan women and human rights defenders from the forum, which has been picked up as a major point of criticism by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International.

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary-general, said in a recent statement that the credibility of the Doha meeting “will be in tatters if it doesn’t adequately address” the Afghan human rights situation and fails to engage Afghan women rights defenders.

Even Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan said recently that the Taliban’s “pattern of systematic violations of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights has intensified, causing immense harm, spanning generations and all elements of society in Afghanistan.”

Afghan experts are, understandably, divided on what outcomes the conference may yield.

Dr Hatef Mokhtar of the Afghanistan International Strategic Studies Centre in Kabul is not optimistic.

“The third Doha conference will fail just like the second one, and the people will not accept its decisions unless Afghans [can have] a national mechanism, reconciliation which is in line with their history, like a grand Loya Jirga (council of elders),” he said.

He also pointed out that the meeting did not feature any representatives of the majority of Afghans.

However, Dr Abdul Shakoor, who teaches politics and economics at a Kabul university, said that the participation of Taliban officials in these talks was in the interest of Afghans as well as the Taliban, since it would mean a chance to have some face-to-face interactions with senior officials from key global players.

Security not on the agenda

According to the Afghan official, the agenda of the meeting includes efforts to counter narcotics and discuss alternatives for the poppy growers; financial and banking issues; and, climate change.

Like Pakistan, freak weather events have badly affected Afghanistan in recent years, with floods and earthquakes wreaking havoc across large swathes of the country.

While observers believe that the Doha talks may well pave the way for further progress on several key issues, there is a recognition that a lot of important matters are being left out of the discussion just to maintain a cordial atmosphere.

Security, for example, is not on the agenda of Doha-III, but it is likely to be a key part of informal deliberations and meetings held on the sidelines.

Islamabad has been Kabul’s most vocal critic on that front, blaming it for harbouring groups such as the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan has also repeatedly blamed Afghanistan for not acting against groups that use its soil to attack targets, such as the recent Bisham attack on Chinese engineers that Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi claimed was plotted and executed from across the western border.

In addition, Kabul is also not out of the woods with its other neighbours either: being blamed by Uzbekistan for harbouring groups such as the ETIM and IMU, being scorned by Iran for serving as a launch pad for Jundullah attacks, as well as coming under the Western security scanner for recent attacks by the militant Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), as well as its support for various factions of Al Qaeda.

There also remain some divergences between the Afghan government and neighbouring Tajikistan with regard to speculations about creation of a Tehreek-i-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT).

Talking about the prospects of Doha-III, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan Mansoor Ahmad Khan said that “quiet engagement between Afghan interim government and the UN, as well as the US and its allies” had led to the Taliban agreeing to participate in the dialogue

“It could become a precursor for an agreement between the Taliban and the international community for stipulating a way forward and a roadmap. Though progress on the complex political and security issues may take some time, the Taliban’s participation in Doha-III indicates that confidence building is underway,” he said.

The Taliban, Amb Khan noted, understand that their decisions as rulers of the Afghan state would have a crucial impact on their relations with the world.

“At the same time the international community is also relaying the message that keeping a country like Afghanistan under isolation for long is neither in the interest of international peace and security, nor the Afghan people,” he concluded.

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