The RAND institute has provided a 200-page roadmap for peace process in Afghanistan. US officials have given the English text of the plan to some parties. I managed to get access to the text before traveling to Qatar, but there has been no discussion on it yet. On the sidelines of the Doha talks, the foreign observers and representatives of various countries were present and they discussed the issue as a preliminary plan and draft. The draft calls for the creation of a "participatory government." If we want to reach an agreement with the Taliban, it is necessary to form a new joint government with the group. There is no fair way to end the war in Afghanistan except for entering a transitional period.
It has been more than four months since the beginning of the intra-Afghan talks between the government and the Taliban. During this period, the experts have presented different narratives about the group’s approach in the talks, but there are many questions that have remain unanswered. Does the Taliban still want to revive the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan? What is the Taliban's definition of a future political system? What is the Taliban's version of Islam? What does the group think about elections? What are their views about Afghanistan's minorities, especially Shiites, and women's rights? Why does the Taliban oppose a ceasefire? To answer these questions, the Institute for East Strategic Studies (IESS) has interviewed with Abdul hafiz Mansour, a member of the Afghan government's negotiating team in Doha.
Q:The Political figures who have met with the Taliban have offered conflicting views about the group. Some believe that the Taliban leaders do not think like they did during the Islamic Emirate era, while others insist that the group has not changed. If we consider the ideology and behavior of the Taliban as two significant factors, do you really think that the Taliban leaders have changed? Mansour: During the days that I have met them closely, I think that the mentality of the Taliban leaders towards the fundamental issues such as governance, women's rights, art, literature, freedom, media, Shiism, and international relations has still remained unchanged. In the Taliban's view, the world is still divided into Dar al-Islam (territory of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (territory of war).
But here, I can refer to two changes:
Under an agreement the Taliban signed with the US in Doha last year, they have practically accepted the concept of a "national government." This means that they have begun to distinguish between the interests of Afghanistan and those of other Islamic countries and pledged not to allow the non-Afghan fighters to operate in their territory as well as to cut their ties with al-Qaeda, the ISIS and other foreign groups. The Taliban previously had a cosmopolitan thinking. They did not believe in the borders and concepts like "national interests” and “national unity." Twenty years ago, when Mullah Omar refused to extradite Osama bin Laden to the United States, he maintained that there is no border between Muslims. The Taliban considered defending Osama bin Laden a "religious obligation" and so entered an endless war with the United States. But today, when they sign an agreement with the US, they are signaling a change.
The second point is that some of the Taliban members have received two short-term negotiation skills courses in the German Berghof Foundation and Norway over the recent years, which has enabled them to effectively use the negotiation tactics.
I just see these two changes in the Taliban, and apart from these, there is no difference in the Taliban's turban, clothes, beard color, etc. For example, the members of the Taliban's negotiating team live in the very modern city of Doha, with the same Afghan clothes they wore in Peshawar and Quetta, Baluchistan. Interestingly, except for the hours that they find themselves forced to sit at a table to negotiate, the Taliban have a larger room for their overnight gatherings at the same hotel where we are staying, in which they use Afghan quilts, mattresses and pillows to feel comfortable. This shows that the Taliban have not changed even in the most rudimentary things.
Q:What you are saying is more about the behavior of the Taliban. What changes can you see in their ideology? You have very important issues to discuss in the second round of the talks, for example the type of Afghanistan’s political system. Some of the Taliban leaders have clearly announced that they want to revive their Islamic Emirate. Mansour: We have to talk about all the issues based on reality and facts. The Taliban delegation provided us with a list of the topics that they want to discuss, which includes 24 provisions. In one of these provisions, they have referred to a "new Islamic system." That's all! We have asked them several times to give more details about this new term, but so far they have refused to do so. Therefore, I cannot say anything.
Q:In recent days, some Afghan media outlets have revealed a plan about the "Islamic State" allegedly shared by Zalmai Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US State Department, with some officials and political figures in Kabul. As a member of the Afghan government negotiating team, what do you think about this plan? Mansour: About eleven months ago, the Rand institute prepared a 200-page plan for Afghanistan. The English text of this plan has recently been given to some parties by American officials. We managed to get access to this text in Kabul before coming to Qatar, but there has been no discussion on it yet. On the sidelines of the Doha talks, the foreign observers and various countries such as the US, the European states, and the UN envoys discussed the issue as a preliminary draft. This roadmap calls for the creation of a "participatory government" under which the Taliban can participate in the future government of Afghanistan, while respecting the common values such as elections, freedom of expression, human rights and women's rights. The plan also calls for a transitional period in Afghanistan until an election is held and a joint government is formed.
Q:One of the most important unanswered questions that is ignored by the Taliban is the group's stance on the elections. Based on the ideology of the Taliban and also on the meetings you have had with the leaders of this group, do the Taliban leaders recognize the elections or not? Is it possible for the group to accept it? Mansour: Yes, this is a question for many people, but the Taliban have not yet explained their agenda. So, I am not allowed to explain it instead of them. However, the Taliban are mainly educated in the Pakistani religious schools and consider themselves as the followers of the Deobandi School. All the scholars of the sub-continent, especially those who live in Pakistan and those who have close relations with the Taliban, have participated in the Pakistan elections and issued various statement on the legitimacy of the general elections.
Q:You said that the Taliban's views on women, the youth, freedom of expression, the media and the Shiites have not changed. Can you explain it? Mansour: The first round of talks, in which we managed to agree on the negotiations’ agenda, was an opportunity to clarify some of the ambiguities regarding the Taliban. For example, when the issue of Shiites and Sunnis was raised, the group clearly took a firm stance against the "Jafari jurisprudence," but later they changed their stance under our pressure. On the other hand, our delegation includes four prominent women from Afghanistan, but many members of the Taliban delegation were reluctant to sit in front of them at a table in the early days of the talks.
Q:What about the media? Mansour: We also talked about the media. Interestingly, the Taliban still consider the Afghan media and their freedom as a "western commodity." It has been heard from some members of the Taliban delegation that the new generation which has grown up in Afghanistan over the past 20 years is an "American-trained" generation which view them with hatred and pessimism.
Q:Regarding the Jafari jurisprudence, what was the position of the Taliban at the beginning? What issues did they raise and what was their argument? What happened when they changed their position? Mansour: I am not allowed to talk about the details of this issue, because it could damage the negotiation process, but suffice it to say that it took more than two months for us to persuade the Taliban to recognize the Jafari jurisprudence for followers of Imam Ja'far Sadegh (Peace be upon him) and the Hanafi jurisprudence for followers of the Hanafi religion.
But the main factor that forced the Taliban to retreat was the united resistance of all the members of the Afghan negotiating team. Perhaps the Taliban believed that since the most members of the Afghan negotiating team are Sunnis, they would turn a blind eye to the issue, but that was not the case. The Afghan team has recognized the Jafari jurisprudence as a legitimate, Islamic, legal and fundamental right of the Afghan people and all of our allies also defended it, so the Taliban finally was forced to accept it.
Q:When the Taliban faced such a reaction, they said that they were only seeking to resolve the differencesduring the negotiations based on the Hanafi jurisprudence, not to questionthe general position of the Shiites in the Afghan constitution. Was that really the case? Mansour: No, the Taliban wanted to lay the foundation for depriving a large part of the people from their basic rights in a bid to pave their own way towards promoting the Taliban ideology. Our view was that during the negotiations we might face fewer disagreements that should to be resolved through referring to jurisprudence and that in political talks the topics would turn around the political, legal, economic, and international issues. On this specific issue, we maintained that the Taliban's ultimate goal is to impose a kind of discrimination and so we strongly opposed it.
Q: The priority of the Afghan delegation is a ceasefire, but the Taliban have focused on the future political system. In similar situations in different countries, a permanent ceasefire is usually the first stepin peace negotiations, but the Taliban are unwilling to accept that. Why? Mansour: This is also a fundamental question for us, but in response, we came to two conclusions:
First, the Taliban is not a religious movement and only chants religious slogans. Why? Because we repeatedly asked them to resolve the issues of war and peace in Afghanistan based on the teachings of Islam, but they refused.
The second point is that the Taliban is not a political movement too. The group only wants to "lead" Afghanistan, but has no political agenda to that purpose.
We made it crystal clear to the Taliban that ceasefire is a priority for us. We asked them to announce their priorities so that we can negotiate on these priorities alongside with ceasefire issue. For example, if the new Islamic system is important for them, it does not matter, we can talk about the new Islamic system along the negotiations on ceasefire. But the group is not ready to talk about ceasefire. Therefore, we consider the Taliban as a war division, which only wants to fight and destroy.
Q:Does the Talban act as an independent movement during the negotiations as they claim? Mansour: I am in a critical situation and I do not have the right to talk about such cases. But, what everyone saw was that the Taliban went to Pakistan just after the first round of the talks to meet the Pakistani officials as well as other members of the Taliban, even those who were in Pakistani hospitals. This shows that the Taliban are favoring close ties with the Pakistani government. But, it is beyond my power to guess what has happened behind the scene.
Q: What are the views of Zalmay Khalilzad? Mansour: I think the mistake that many of our politicians in Afghanistan are making is that they think of Zalmay Khalilzad as their cousin. So, they expect too much of him. But, we forgot that he is a high-ranking American official on whom the US government has invested a lot of and trained him and that he has passed various tests in order to become the United States’ envoy to the United Nations, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a person has an American mindset and only pursues the interests of the United States. If we look at him from this perspective, then we must prepare to face a Zalmay Khalilzad who is no longer Afghan, but American.
Q:It is said that the reason behind Ashraf Ghani's refusal to meet with Zalmay Khalilzad was the US plan to establish an interim government in Afghanistan. You also had previously said that the creation of an interim government was a necessity. What is your take about an interim government in Afghanistan? Mansour: I still think that if we are to reach an agreement with the Taliban and end the war, we need to form a new joint government with the group. In this case, a transitional period is needed for holding a general election in Afghanistan. This period is needed so that we can demilitarize and give Taliban the opportunity to have their own candidates both in the parliament and the presidential elections. Therefore, I still believe that there is no fair way to end the war in Afghanistan except for having a transitional period.
Q:Ghani does not accept this argument and wants to finish his own legal term. At the same time, some of the political figures are supporting the idea of an interim government. What do you think? Is there a political consensus on this issue in Afghanistan? Mansour: In this case, I can only convey my own personal opinion. Given that the negotiating team, of which I am a member, is a subset of the High Council for National Reconciliation, so it is only accountable to the Council which is headed by Abdullah. Basically, no ministry, including the president, has the authority to intervene in this issue.
Q:But some members of your delegation are close to the president. Mansour: Abdulsalam Rahimi, the special representative of the president of Afghanistan and the deputy chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, is on the negotiating team and knows all the details. But in our daily meetings, we all are in complete agreement and there is no problem among us in this regard.
Q: Reportedly,the political leaders of Afghanistan say the United States has presented the plan of the interim government, but the chargéd'affaires of the US embassy in Kabul has rejected the claim. Why? Mansour: There have been some mistakes in the translation of the text quoted from the US chargé d'affaires. He meant that they did not order the plan and are not behind it, but if the conflict parties in Afghanistan agree with it, it can be used as an alternative. But, it is not mandatory.
I mentioned earlier that, as far as I know, this plan was developed several months ago by the Rand institute and has been made available to a number of Afghan political figures.
Q:Given the statements made by Biden's team, do you think that the new US government will change the Doha agreement? What do you think about the reinstatement of Zalmay Khalilzad? Mansour: As for Zalmay Khalilzad, we still think he is the most senior and credible Afghan scholar in the United States. I think the new US government will use Zalmay Khalilzad's experience regarding Afghanistan.
The second point is that Joe Biden is fundamentally different from Trump in terms of management. Trump wanted to control the United States and its relations with the world via his own twitter page and did not pay attention to the views of experts. But, I think that Biden, given his long experience in politics, will pay more attention to the political and military experts’ opinions. I do not know what changes the United States will make to the Doha agreement, but I can clearly say that Biden will not act as reckless as Trump. It does not mean that Biden will send the American troops back to Afghanistan, but now that the US has the smallest number of troops in Afghanistan (2,500), this troop level may be maintained for several months.
The next point that has a direct impact on Afghanistan is that the US allies in the NATO were not satisfied with Trump's behavior. Biden, however, will work in greater coordination and consultation with NATO members in global level, and especially in Afghanistan.
Another point is that, in my opinion, Trump's pressures on Iran will be slightly reduced when Joe Biden takes office, and if the United States returns to the JCPOA, it means that Iran will play a more active role in the Afghan peace talks. Today, Iran is the only country that has no representative in the peace talks.
Likewise, I am sure that the US-Russia relations under Donald Trump will no longer continue and Biden will take a more serious stance against Moscow. The US policy towards China will also play an important role in the negotiations. As you may know, part of the Taliban's expenses must be paid by China. So, it is not clear to me that whether Biden will continue Trump's path on China or he will reduce the existing tensions. As Biden's policies become clearer, so will the situation.
Q:Regarding the issue of changing the constitution of Afghanistan, what issues did the Taliban raise and what is their plan? Mansour: Nothing. They have not said anything yet.
Q:To what extent can the issue of changing the constitution satisfy the views of internal factions in Afghanistan, especially given the fact that Abdullah has always sought to change the political system of Afghanistan? Mansour: Yes. Like Abdullah, I am a supporter of this idea and consider the presidential system unfair. But changing a political structure must be done in legal, legitimate and acceptable ways. We have told the Taliban that you are not the only party that is looking for reform. We also want reform, but not through fighting, killing, destroying and exploding.
Q:The intra-Afghan negotiations, contrary to the expectations of its designers, have lasted for a long time and there is still no prospect for its end. It can be seen that following the second round of the talks, the Taliban are no more interested to continue it. What are the most important obstacles to the intra-Afghan negotiations? What kind of outlook can you imagine for these talks? Mansour: The Afghan government team has no problem and is ready for any kind of talks. About the future of the talks, I have already made some remarks. There are several factors involved in this regard and I cannot accurately predict what the future will be, how long the negotiations will last and what challenges will arise. But it is clear now that the Taliban are not ready for a constructive and useful dialogue.
Q:What could be the reasons behind the Taliban's reluctance? Are they still waiting to see Biden's position towards the Afghan peace process? Mansour: I do not know. This is just a guess. But what I know exactly is that the Taliban are currently blocking the negotiations, but why? I do not know!
Q: Do you wait until they get back to the talks? Mansour: Of course; this 40-year war requires a lot of patience.