Unlike other peace processes – from Colombia to the Philippines –, there is no exclusive Afghan government delegation to the officially so-called intra-Afghan negotiations that started in Doha (Qatar) in September 2020. Instead, a construct called the “negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (IRoA team) with 21 members is facing the Taliban.
There are two major reasons why this is the case. The first reason lies in the fact that the Taliban have not recognised any post-2001 Afghan government as legitimate and, even more, that the United States accepted this fact in its February 2020 bilateral troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. This agreement does not provide for any direct role of the Afghan government in future intra-Afghan talks to end the war. It only says that “Afghan sides” should participate in talks with the Taliban. The Taliban argue that the current government is propped up by the US and its allies, and even refer to its lack of democratic legitimacy. In a 29 February 2020 interview, their then-chief negotiator Sher Abbas Stanakzai told Afghan TV channel Tolo that “today there is no government in Afghanistan” because “the elections weren’t held in a transparent manner [and] public turnout was quite low.”
The US consent to the Taliban’s rejection of the government also did not come out of the blue. In order to circumvent this hurdle and get talks with the Taliban started, US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad – who is of Afghan birth – first invented the espression of an “inclusive and effective national team” in early 2019. By now, this has morphed into the IRoA team.
The second reason for this type of negotiating team is also that domestic political opponents and a “third force” that coalesced around former President Hamed Karzai and did not choose sides in the 2019 election question the legitimacy of the Ghani government after two widely manipulated presidential elections without broadly accepted results (in 2014 and 2019).
In 2014, this crisis was papered over by the establishment of a National Unity Government in which Ghani became president and his main challenger Dr Abdullah Abdullah was appointed “chief executive”, an extra-constitutional position. In 2019, Ghani refused to accept another such “coalition” government but gave Dr Abdullah, who again had been his main rival in the election, nominal control over affairs related to “peace”. Abdullah accepted the chairmanship of the newly established High Council of National Reconciliation (HCNR). Abdullah and Karzai and their allies, fearing that Ghani was trying to “monopolise” control over the peace process, supported Khalilzad’s idea of a broader team that would also include members of the domestic political opposition and civil society. In the Ghani-Abdullah political agreement that constitutes the legal basis of this arrangement, both electoral camps were given seats on the HCNR and the negotiating team for Doha.
However, the domestic opposition is far from united. There are representatives of various parties in the team, from Abdullah’s (also split) Jamiat-e Islami, General (now Marshal) Dostum Jombesh, the various factions of Hezb-e Wahdat, the two rival factions of Hezb-e Islami, supporters of former president Hamed Karzai and other groups. In contrast to their adversaries, though, there are no high-ranking actors such as Taliban deputy leader Mulla Baradar. Instead, in three cases, modernly educated sons of “warlords” are on the team: Bator Dostum for Jombesh; Khaled Nur, son of former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur who leads the major Jamiat faction and Matin Bek, son of the assassinated north-eastern Afghan mujahedin commander Mutaleb Bek, an Uzbek. Fatema Gailani – one of four women on the team – is the daughter of former mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani (with a prominent role herself as one of the few early women politicians and former head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society).
Among the three other women are Habiba Sarabi, daughter of a Hazara minister during the monarchy and Najibullah’s‚ national reconciliation’s government, also a former deputy chair of the High Peace Council (affiliated with Ghani and his VP Danesh); Sharifa Zurmati, a Pashtun former MP (affiliated with Ghani); and Fawzia Kufi, a leading women’s rights activist linked to Jamiat elements. Ghairat Bahir is a son-in-law of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He has not joined the team because of the party’s political disagreements with Ghani.
On the presidential side, there are high-ranking current and former officials; the team is led by Masum Stanekzai, a Ghani stalwart, a former head of the country’s intelligence service (NDS), acting Minister of Defence and CEO of the (now defunct) High Peace Council. Some, both from the presidential and from the opposition camp, have civil society backgrounds, although some, having government positions by now, such as Naderi. Muhammad Amin Ahmadi, chancellor of a private university, represent academia, but was also nominated by one of the parties. Ataullah Ludin, acting head of the country’s Ulema Council and Mawlawi Enayatullah Balegh, former justice minister, represent the religious scholars and religious forces.
There are eight Pashtuns, six Tajiks, four Hazaras, two Uzbeks and an Ismaili on the team.
As self-serving as the US action to bring about this team was, it could have an enormous advantage, as it juxtaposes two concepts between which Afghans would have to choose, the inherently democratic one of a republic and the authoritarian version of an emirate. On the surface, the different political camps that have representation in the IRoA team have found a common language at least on one issue, that they want to defend the “republican system” as enshrined in the current constitution.
But there is a downside, too: the current republic is dysfunctional, and its leaders are no clear-cut democrats. The pluralism in the IRoA team in Doha reflects fragmentation, not democratic diversity. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a power-sharing between the current Afghan “republicans” – who in fact are speaking for an Islamic republic (institutionally, an unclear concept, see Pakistan and Iran) – and the Taliban will bring about a stronger, better functioning Afghan democracy.