Afghan Peace Talks from Doha to Istanbul

Afghan Peace Talks from Doha to Istanbul
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The USA has chosen to sit at the negotiation table with his rival Taliban to leave the process without losing its reputation, a process which started with the USA’s occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and did not result in peace as the US hoped. After a tough process of talks and meetings between the parties that lasted for 18 months, a peace treaty was signed on February 29, 2020, in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Within the framework of the Doha agreement, the Taliban agreed to sit at the negotiation table with the Afghan government on the conditions that all foreign troops are withdrawn, and all prisoners are released. Thus, the Taliban and Afghan government sit at the same table on September 12, 2020, for the first time after a long and bloody conflict that lasted for 19 years. Even though the talks started with great hopes in Doha, the process stuck several times because of significant differences of opinion and acceleration of violence in the country. The change of power in the USA in January has worsened the process, which had already stopped proceeding. Taliban left the peace talks since after Biden took over the presidency, Washington stated that Doha Agreement will be reconsidered. Thus, the negotiations, which lasted for five months, came to an end without any concrete progress.

What is the new roadmap of the USA?

Biden’s presidency has opened a new phase in the Afghan peace process. While there was an ongoing debate over whether Biden will follow the Doha Agreement signed by his predecessor Donald Trump, State Secretary Anthony Blinken declared that the agreement will be reconsidered. Shortly after his statement, on March 7, Blinken sent letters to Afghan leaders concerning the new path which the USA will pursue about the Afghanistan issue. In the letter, which was far from diplomatic language, Blinken invited Afghan leaders to get together for the establishment of a new, inclusive government. He also informed the leaders about an international conference that will be held in Turkey under the supervision of the United Nations (UN) with the participation of the states that may be effective in the Afghanistan issue, including China, Iran, Russia, India, and Pakistan. Washington’s draft plan, which was shared with Afghan leaders by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, made clear that “a new, inclusive government” means the establishment of an interim government. After the collapse of the Taliban, an interim government was established, in a meeting that was held by the UN in Bonn, with the participation of different Afghan political groups in November 2001. The USA seeks a similar interim government that includes all political groups. In this context, the Istanbul Summit may be considered as the second Bonn.

Which Subjects Will be Discussed at the Istanbul Summit?

As pointed above, the establishment of a transitional government in the context of the USA’s “peace plan” will be one of the primary subjects in the Istanbul summit. Even though the details have not been shared with the media yet, it is possible to mention a consensus on the interim government, except Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani has expressed his opposition to an interim government in several of his statements thus far. Nevertheless, Ghani, who is not able to protect his power without US support, is not expected to resist the pressures of Washington. Another significant matter that will be discussed at the Istanbul Summit will be the retreat of the USA from Afghanistan. According to the Doha Agreement, the USA has to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan until May 1, 2021. However, military experts do not expect Biden to decide so until the deadline. As a matter of fact, in a press conference on March 25, Biden said it will be hard to meet the deadline on the withdrawal. As stated by American media, Biden considers a six-month extension of the withdrawal or a slower withdrawal that does not have an end date. The primary purpose of Washington is to convince the Taliban to postpone the deadline of withdrawal. The Biden administration may ask for a postponement in return for releasing all Taliban members from the US prisons and removing the names of Taliban leaders from the UN’s blacklist. However, there is very little chance for the Taliban to accept this offer. The Taliban reacted to Biden’s statements on short notice. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid made threats to continue the war if the USA does not meet the deadline of the withdrawal that is specified in the agreement. Immediately afterward, the Taliban started destructive attacks against 50 districts and major cities, including Kandahar, Khost, Helmand.

What Could be the Role of Turkey in the Afghan Peace Process?

Turkey has all capacity to make contributions to the Afghan peacemaking process through its ability to work with the USA as a NATO member, its close relationships with the countries of the region, that may affect the Afghan issue, and through its long and successful relationship with Afghanistan. Turkey has already made a significant contribution to Afghanistan on several subjects in the frameworks of the states’ bilateral relations, UN or NATO. These contributions are appreciated by the Afghan government, local actors, and the Afghan people. Thus, Turkey is able to establish dialogues with all the groups in Afghanistan without any exception of ethnicity or sect. Therefore, Turkey comes into prominence as one of the limited countries that may help the peacemaking process in Afghanistan. Turkey’s close relationship with Pakistan is another reason why it is favourable. Pakistan is one of the key countries for the Afghanistan issue because of its 2400 km border. Especially military and intelligence office units of Pakistan have a significant influence over the Taliban. According to many experts, it is not possible to reach a permanent solution to the issue without Pakistan’s approval. This situation intensifies the importance of Turkey’s close relationship with Pakistan. In this respect, strategic relations between Ankara and Islamabad could make a difference in the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Lastly, Turkey is the only member of NATO whose majority of the population is Muslim. It makes Turkey the most acceptable state to send troops to Afghanistan in observer status. Taliban or other opposition groups, who strongly reject the US or other countries’ troops in Afghanistan, may accept a peacekeeping force led by Turkey. All these factors show Turkey’s ability to play an effective role in the peace process.

What is the Significance of the Istanbul Summit for Turkey?

If Turkey played an active role in the Afghan peace process, it could open a new chapter for the Ankara-Washington relationship. Currently, the Afghanistan issue constitutes the most urgent foreign policy matter for the Biden administration. As pointed above, the USA promised to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan until May 1, 2021, in the Doha Agreement. Due to the lack of time, the Biden administration has to take quick steps on the Afghanistan issue. Therefore, the Istanbul Summit is crucially significant. As the host of the summit, Turkey’s constructive role on the subjects will create a positive effect on the Washington-Ankara relationship. Turkey may seek some compromises on some conflicting issues such as S-400, FETO (Gulen movement), and YPG (People’s Protection Units) in return for its role in the Istanbul summit.

Turkey’s role in the chronic issue of Afghanistan will also increase its reputation as a moderator in the international community. In this regard, Istanbul Summit could be an example for future conflicts that require solutions. Lastly, Istanbul Summit is the last chance for the Afghan people, who have been struggling with the civil war for more than 40 years. Afghan politicians and people see Istanbul Summit as a turning point for the establishment of peace. The chairman of the Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, indicated their expectation of concrete progress from the Istanbul Summit in his statement. As one of the opposition leaders, the president of the Islamic Party, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, evaluated Istanbul Summit as an important opportunity for peace. All these factors represent the significance of Turkey’s role in the Afghan peace process. Ankara should make its moves with consideration of this opportunity. Doha Peace Talks showed that if there was no involvement in the talks by other parties other than Afghan groups, the process could be stuck. Therefore, Turkey should not be just a host but act as a moderator when it is necessary. The peace and stability in Afghanistan depend on the successful management of domestic and international balances of power. That is why Turkey should take advantage of its relationship with Pakistan as well as its relationship with the local actors.