Will the Republic delegation stand united in Istanbul meeting?

As Turkey is preparing to host a peace meeting over Afghan conflict in its western city of Istanbul, Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) works more than peace proposals, submitted by various Afghan political factions, to take a united stance in talks with the Taliban that is tentatively scheduled to take place on April 16.

The Istanbul meeting on Afghanistan comes at a time when the United States is pushing the Afghan government to sign a peace settlement with the Taliban militants, a group that demands the US to pull out its forces from Afghanistan.

Last year, under the Trump administration, the US signed a peace deal with the Taliban to end America’s longest war. The deal signed between the previous US administration and the Taliban bound the US to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by May 01, 2021, while it obliged the Taliban to engage in direct meaningful peace talks with the Afghan government.

For the first time in 19 years, the Afghan government sat with a Taliban peace delegation on September 12, 2020, in the Qatari capital, Doha. The two sides took several months to finalize terms of reference for substantive talks but little was achieved as talks stalled.

On March 18, prominent Afghan politicians flew to Moscow to attend another peace meeting with the Taliban representatives. The Moscow conference that was attended by representatives from the US, Pakistan, and China called for the urgency of peace in Afghanistan.

As a priority on the list of foreign policy, the newly-elected US president Joe Biden sent the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to Kabul and regional capitals to jumpstart the stalled Afghan peace process. Mr. Khalilzad came with a new proposal that included an immediate ceasefire and the establishment of an interim government. But the proposal was followed by criticisms and rejection of President Ghani’s government and approval by some influential political figures, particularly that of the HCNR Chairman Abdullah Abdullah. It was shared with the Taliban office in Doha. The group said they would review it.

In the upcoming peace meeting, the Afghan government and the Taliban will discuss the US proposal for Afghanistan’s reconciliation. The United Nations will monitor the Istanbul meeting co-hosted by Turkey and Qatar.

Agendas agreed upon

The Istanbul meeting on Afghanistan is tentatively scheduled to take place on April 16 and there is little chance of postponement though Jean Arnault, the special envoy of the UN Secretary-General on the Afghan peace—the highest UN official in charge of the Afghan peace process—has reportedly fallen ill, infected by Covid-19.

Sources familiar with the subject, told Kabul Now that a high-level delegation of the Afghan warring parties, foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries including foreign ministers of China, Russia, India, the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, and Norway will attend the Istanbul meeting. As planned, the negotiations will be held between the two sides after serving the Iftar – breaking the fast during Ramadan – and will continue until the daybreak.

In response to concerns raised by Afghan factions regarding negotiation mechanisms in the US proposal, Khalilzad has reportedly brought some changes in the first chapter of the proposal titled “shared principles.” All parties have approved the amendment. The chapter includes negotiating transitional arrangements, permanent ceasefire, implementation, and oversight of the potential agreement.

The US proposal emphasizes, as reportedly said, on an immediate end to war, the establishment of an Islamic, united, democratic, and inclusive government.

Rifts dividing the Republic camp

The Republic camp was asked upon the arrival of the US proposal to come up with a united stance to the Istanbul conference. To unify the camp, a committee was established within the HCNR setup that is chaired by Yunus Qanuni. The committee was tasked to review more than 20 peace proposals and develop a unified proposal that represents the Afghan factions but it has yet to come with the final decision as its final meeting was interrupted by the latest arrival of Mr. Khalilzad.

Sources familiar with the subject told Kabul Now that the Islamic Republic will ultimately attend the upcoming conference in Turkey with three proposals despite the fact that there was an urge for a unified proposal. The first proposal will be a unified proposal by the HCNR, the second will be a proposal prepared by the Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the third proposal will be that of the Jamiat-e-Islami party of Afghanistan led by Sallahuddin Rabbani. A source from the HCNR told Kabul Now that Khalilzad has again stressed, in his meeting with Abdullah, that the Islamic Republic should have a unified proposal.

Various Afghan factions that gather under the umbrella of the Republic are not united on many subjects including the mechanisms for the transition of power, the structure of the post-peace political settlement, the format of negotiations, and the list of delegates who have to attend the Istanbul conference.

A political group that is categorized as President Ghani’s bloc has proposed early elections as a mechanism for the transfer of power. Some political factions have declared that they would prefer this mechanism only if the Taliban accepts and they will stand against it if the Taliban rejects it.

Other political groups who gather around the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and other Pashtun-dominated political parties propose a presidential system as a post-peace political structure. The two factions of Jamiat-e-Islami party of Afghanistan and other Tajik dominated-groups propose a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister is elected by the Parliament. Sources in Hezbe Wahdat-e-Islami led by Mohammad Karim Khalili told Kabul Now that they support a parliamentary system. The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan led by Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum also favors a parliamentary system. Sources from the People’s Islamic Unity of Afghanistan led by Mohammad Mohaqiq implied that their party has not yet made any decision whether to favor a parliamentary or presidential system.

Despite public support for a presidential system, Karzai’s bloc will likely propose decentralization of power in lower levels of governance.

Some Tajik political elites, Hezbe Jamiat-e-Islami, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar favor a three-party format for negotiations in Istanbul. The Tajik political elites and some figures who had formed the United Front during the 1990s suggest holding the talks between the Taliban – Afghan government – and the Resistance Front. Hekmatyar, meanwhile, proposes that talks must be held between the government, Hezb-e-Islami, Hezbe Jamiat-e-Islami, Hezbe Wahdat-e-Islami, and the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan.

The Republic camp is divided on multiple scores of topics including delegations.

Sources close to political factions, including Karzai and Ghani’s blocs, say they will send a same-level delegation to Istanbul if the Taliban attend the conference under the leadership of the group’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Ghani and Karzai will send a delegation equal to the profiles of the Taliban delegation and will take part in high-profile levels if the Taliban leadership attends the meeting. A source from the HCNR told Kabul Now that Khalilzad has asked the High Council to prepare two different lists equal to the level of Taliban delegation for the conference.

According to sources familiar with the delegation list, a primary agreement suggests that a 16-membered delegation will attend the Istanbul conference. Two or four members of the delegation will be picked by the Presidential Palace – Ghani’s bloc. The HCNR will pick eight members of the delegation. Karzai’s office will pick two members. And two or four members of the delegation will be picked by Hezb-e-Islami and Hezbe Jamiat-e-Islami.

The list is not yet finalized and might change.

Agendas that bring the Republic camp together

The Republic camp is seemingly united on three elements proposed by the United States. A vast majority of political factions involved in the peace process have unitedly changed the High Council of Islamic Jurisprudence to an advisory board of ulama, opposing any observatory and executive authority for the board. All political factions have clearly declared that they do not accept a fifty-fifty power-sharing deal with the Taliban. Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the main opposing parties to the fifty-fifty power-sharing deal with the Taliban are Pashtun leaders and other factions who fear that such a deal would isolate them from power, not the non-Pashtun factions.

Almost all political factions, except Hekmatyar, have ignored establishing the High Government Council in a post-peace settlement setup.

Concerns are high as the Taliban may show no flexibility

Sources told Kabul Now that all political factions share concerns about the future of talks, with some saying that Afghanistan would plunge into a bloody war if the Istanbul conference collapses. Some of these factions expressed concern that the United States rushes to a hurried withdrawal, fearing that a hasty US withdrawal will weaken the chance for enduring peace. Some factions say that the Taliban are still not trustworthy as they have shown little flexibility to sign a true peace settlement. They predict that the militant group countdown for US withdrawal and would use a military option to take power once the US pulled out of Afghanistan.

Some political factions, particularly Karzai’s bloc, insist on the removal of the Taliban from the UN’s blacklist, the release of 7,000 Taliban prisoners, and Ghani’s removal from power after the peace agreement is made and a ceasefire is declared. The Taliban, however, reiterate these demands as conditions to be met before the peace agreement is reached – suggesting the group’s intention to overthrow the government.

Sources told Kabul Now that the US has confirmed in letters sent to the United Nations and Turkey that Washington is seeking to get the Taliban’s agreement on declaring a three-month ceasefire. As per account of these sources, the US will push for delisting the Taliban from the UN’s blacklist, release their prisoners and Ghani’s removal from power.

On the other hand, sources involved in the peace process, confirmed to Kabul Now that some European countries which are not satisfied with the Istanbul conference are seeking to undermine the conference and sabotage it. The source added that these countries are looking to host a separate conference and would invite youth, civil society activists, and women rights activists to take part – in parallel to the Istanbul conference.

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