Taliban, Afghan Leaders Urge For “Zero Civilian Casualties”

After two-day peace talks between Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives in the Doha, Qatar, both sides have ended with a call to reduce civilian casualties to “zero” in the war-torn country.

The intra-Afghan meetings, mediated by Qatar and Germany, saw the participation of Afghan politicians, civil society members, including 10 female delegates, according to Al Jazeera. After a tumultuous 18 years of conflict, these talks represent a substantive step toward peace in Afghanistan.

The joint statement released after the meeting stated that the parties pledged “to respect and protect the dignity of people, their life and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to zero.” The communication also guaranteed the sanctity of public institutions: “ensuring the security of public institutions, such as schools, religious madrassas, hospitals, markets, water damns, and other working locations.”

Following the press briefing last Monday, several delegates and diplomats different on details of the joint statement. As reported by Al Jazeera, former Afghan Minister of Finance, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, refused to call it an “agreement” and instead “a call for a reduction of civilian casualties and protection of public places and institutions.”

Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, described the talks as a “conference where everybody was expressing his or her views regarding peace in Afghanistan.” While Markus Potzel, Germany’s Afghanistan envoy who co-hosted the talks with Qatar, commented the joint statement contained “an appeal and promise to reduce violence in Afghanistan,” according to Al-Jazeera.

The talks also follow six days of direct U.S.-Taliban talks which were organized to initiate direct dialogue between the rival sides that have been at war with each other since the U.S.-led invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

These talks are to resume on Tuesday to negotiate the details of a framework initiated in January. These talks established a timeline for U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a ceasefire, and a Taliban guarantee to not allow foreign forces to use the country as a staging ground for international attacks.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Washington announced it intends to set a deal with the Taliban ahead of Afghan presidential polls due in September to allow foreign forces to begin to withdraw. U.S. lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, commented that the latest round of U.S.-Taliban talks “have been the most productive of the rounds we’ve had.”

Despite the peace talks, violence persists in Afghanistan. A car bomb in the eastern part of the country killed at least 12 people and wounded more on Sunday. Moreover, as reported by the BBC, Taliban fighters are regularly killed in large numbers in airstrikes, night raids, and in combat by U.S. and Afghan militaries.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan remained a country plagued with conflict, including failed attempts of ending the war and establishing peace. When Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Moscow-backed government in Kabul lasted for three years; however, its collapse in 1992 ushered in a bloody civil war involving various Afghan factions supported by different regional powers.

Emerging out of the chaos of the civil war, the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled most of Afghanistan until the US-led invasion removed them from power in 2001 for sheltering al-Qaeda, the militant network behind the 9/11 attacks.

Since their inception, the Taliban has maintained its mission to restore peace and security and enforce their austere version of Sharia Law once in power in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. Currently, the Taliban control and influence more territory than at any point since 2001, BBC reports.

The current dialogue between involved parties could mean the start of the end of fighting and the formation of an inclusive Afghan government, but given the internal rivalries and diverse agendas of various local actors, the intra-Afghan phase of the peace process might prove more complicated than the U.S. Taliban talks.

BBC correspondent Dawood Azami reflects, “even if the U.S. and Taliban resolve their major issues, the Afghans themselves will need to sort out several key internal issues – including a ceasefire, dialogue between the Taliban and the government, and most importantly, the formation of a new government and political system.”

The Taliban consider Ashraf Ghani’s presidency a U.S.-imposed “puppet regime,” and reject the current constitution While many Afghans fear that sharing power with the Taliban could see a return to the group’s obscurantist interpretation of Islamic justice.

Azami concludes that the alternative to peace is dire and would consist of an “intensification of conflict and instability in a country strategically located in a region with a cluster of major powers including China, Russia, India, Iran, and Pakistan.” Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State could emerge out of this security vacuum, and the overflow of refugees would pose severe challenges to not only Afghanistan but to the whole region and the rest of the world.

Establishing a dialogue of cooperation and interdependence between rival parties given the years of conflict will prove challenging. Indeed, starting talks between actors is a step in the right direction, but also does not guarantee that a peaceful resolution to the war. Implementation of peace and the agreements on paper is crucial. The biggest obstacle for Afghanistan is the creation of enforcement mechanisms in any post-deal scenario.

A crucial element of establishing positive peace includes crafting an Afghan constitution that is popularly accepted by the different parties. Crafting a constitution does not necessarily lead to stability as it could also enable violence, but the process of crafting the law could provide a basis for reconciliation and mutual trust between the distinct groups. The process should include community dialogues and widespread participation of a plethora of different Afghan society members. The drafting process matters because incumbents at the time of drafting know in advance whether they want to seize power by codifying benefits for themselves, or whether they must concede to public involvement to fortify the nation’s transition into peace.

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