Peace talks with Taliban not feasible without Afghan govt. leading it

In an exclusive interview with Tehran Times, Shafeek Seddiq, a renowned legal expert, political commentator and writer based in Kabul, talked about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, peace talks between the Taliban and the US, and upcoming presidential elections.

The security situation continues to worsen in war-ravaged Afghanistan with a spate of terror attacks in recent months. The Afghan government and the Taliban observed an unprecedented three-day ceasefire on Eid al Fitr but it turned out to be a lull before the storm. This week, to mark Eid al Azha, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been under tremendous pressure, again announced conditional ceasefire but the Taliban has not responded to it.

Shafeek Seddiq, President of Afghanistan Justice Organization (AJO), is a renowned legal expert, political commentator and writer based in Kabul. In an interview with Tehran Times, he spoke about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, peace talks between the Taliban and the US, upcoming presidential elections and relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following are the excerpts:

The strategic Ghazni city was overrun by the Taliban, resulting in the killing of more than 100 Afghan security personnel. There has been intense fighting in Faryab, Baghlan and Kunduz as well. Can we say, at present, the Taliban has got an upper hand in this war?

I would not characterize it as overrun, but attacked, and the number of casualties has not been confirmed by the government of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it was another bold move by the Taliban to create this false image and perception of their ability to take over provincial cities. With regards to the ?upper hand?, it would depend on its reference. If you mean Taliban has increased attacks, yes, if you mean they maybe controlling more territory than years before, yes, but if you mean in terms of military power or success or ruling, then no, the Taliban have not gotten the upper hand.

The fighting in Kunduz happened a few days after reports about preliminary peace talks between the US officials and the Taliban in Doha, although the Taliban spokesman denied reports about any talks with the US Do you think the talks happened and what would be its likely overcome?

I believe the direct talks took place as they have been reported in the US media and acknowledged by the US State Department. However, the details of the talks and who was in attendance have not been disclosed or reported. I think the US has agreed to the Taliban demand for direct talks and has taken that initial step; however, it is most likely that the government of Afghanistan will soon lead the peace talks with regional actors’ participation eventually.

I think it is a good first step. I hope to see an immediate ceasefire agreement, and it is time for all parties to pursue this in earnest and in good faith so that the country can be given a break, at a minimum, from this 40-year war. A generation of Afghans has been traumatized and need a break.

By talking directly with the Taliban, some analysts and political stalwarts, including a former US envoy to Afghanistan, said undermines the credibility of the President Ghani led government in Kabul, which has been batting for the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. What do you think?

I disagree, as President Ghani announced he welcomes the initial steps. President Ghani knows, and the US intends to bring him in and lead the peace negotiation. It is simply not feasible without the Afghan governments involvement or leading it.

Afghanistan will soon have parliamentary and presidential elections but there are fears about rigging and manipulation as was reported in 2014 presidential election. How legitimate are these fears?

There is always a fear for a variety of reasons including lack of resources and security. And I suspect there will be some fraud, however, not to the extent of the 2014 election as the legal and institutional reform and capacity building have improved the working of both the independent election commission and the independent complaint commission.

There is also change in Afghan’s attitude, especially the younger generation, in putting the interest of the people and the country ahead of the individual, tribe, or ethnicity.

Many senior political figures have switched ends in past four years. Do you see realignment of political forces before the next election? Who will be President Ghani’s main opponent and do you think he will be able to retain power?  

Yes, alliances have already been taking place and will be further refined as we get closer to April 2019. However, it will not amount to much force as they are all recognized individuals and parties. At present, I have not seen anyone announced (although it is early) or emerged as a formidable opponent to President Ghani. The majority of the usual suspects (those that have been active in Afghan politics for the last 17) will not pose a major challenge to President Ghani, unless someone from his inner circle or cabinet decides to run against him. Otherwise, I suspect he will be re-elected.

Recently, at least 150 ISIL fighters reportedly surrendered to Afghan security forces in northern Afghanistan. According to reports, they might be given amnesty by the Afghan government while some reports claim they will be treated as prisoners of war. What should the Afghan government be doing?  

It depends on the circumstances of the surrender and the Afghan and international laws. I suspect the Afghan government will apply a combination of methods to achieve a multitude of objectives.

We have seen fierce fighting between the Taliban and ISIL in northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan in recent months. The ISIL fighters in Jawzjan, according to some reports, surrendered after facing defeat at the hands of Taliban. If they have shared interests, then why are Taliban and ISIL baying for each other’s blood?  

Taliban and ISIL do not have shared ideology but share some interests. ISIL promotes Islamic Caliphate throughout the world while Taliban wants to free the country from ‘invaders’. Taliban, however, want Sharia rule in Afghanistan only and have not made claims to extend it beyond its borders. That is why Taliban do not want another opponent to muddle their cause or eventually be a challenge to their rule.

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum recently returned to Afghanistan after spending more than a year in exile in Turkey for allegedly torturing his political rival in northern Afghanistan. Is his return just before the general election in Afghanistan an indication that Ghani wants him as his running mate again?

I am puzzled by his return so I am not really sure about the purpose of his return. I do not believe that Dostum will be Ghani’s running mate next April, and the only reason I can think of why he was allowed to return is that Ghani may have wanted to pacify Dostum’s followers and bring him under his jurisdiction to prosecute, if necessary or at least have Dostum live under the cloud of potential prosecution if he misbehaves this time.

European Union has said that the legal proceedings against Dostum should continue because no one is above the law. Do you think he can be booked under law?  

I am not sure if EU should be making such remarks, though they have in the past. But, I think it is within the realm of sovereign Afghanistan and its executive branch, the President, to decide what to do next. Allies and donors have to right to ask something for return of their support, but not the right to infringe upon the sovereignty of a country.

There is a new government in Islamabad now and the PM-in-waiting Imran Khan has expressed desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Can we see a new chapter in Afghan-Pakistan relations?

I truly hope so and look forward to see a new chapter in Af-Pak relationship that is based on long-term and mutually beneficial.

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