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Afghanistan Leaders Meet as Peace Talks Get Underway

14 Sep 2020 Foreign Policy

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Intra-Afghan talks begin as the leaders of the Afghan government and the Taliban meet for the first time, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party anoints Yoshihide Suga as its new leader, and Putin meets with Lukashenko to discuss Belarus crisis.

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Afghanistan’s Peace Process Hangs in the Balance 

Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban meet today in their first face-to-face meeting as part of peace negotiations aimed at bringing an end to their nearly two-decade-old conflict. The talks began in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday in a formal ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The start of the talks followed months of delays over the highly contentious issue of prisoner releases. As part of the peace agreement signed with the United States in February, the Taliban agreed to release 1,000 Afghan military personnel in exchange for the government releasing 5,000 of its fighters. After several false starts, President Ashraf Ghani agreed to authorize the release of the final 320 “hardcore” Taliban prisoners, setting the stage for the current meeting.

What’s on—and off—the agenda. The negotiations are expected to cover the terms of a permanent ceasefire, the rights of women and minorities, and the disarmament of the country’s many militia groups. More broadly, the two sides will also discuss long-term constitutional arrangements as well as a possible power-sharing arrangement between them. As Ezzatullah Mehrdad wrote in Foreign Policy last week, many young Afghans who detest the Taliban feel their interests have been ignored and are taking to social media to vent their frustration.

Power sharing deal? Ghani recently told local reporters that “peace does not mean a power sharing political deal.” A significant portion of the talks will likely center around whether a political settlement will be implemented before or after a ceasefire. The Afghan government has already said it wants to see a political settlement first, but the Taliban is unlikely to end its military activity before it achieves at least some of its political objectives. The two sides could agree to appoint a transitional government to lead the effort on these issues.

Violence continues. But the negotiations are occurring against the backdrop of continuing violence across the country. Last week, the United Nations’ top official in Afghanistan warned that violence has reached near-record levels and threatened to derail the talks. Just hours before the start of talks on Saturday, the Taliban carried out a wave of attacks on government installations across the country, and Afghan security forces responded with air and artillery strikes in some parts of the country on Saturday.

“With the start of intra-Afghan talks we were expecting the Taliban to reduce the number of their attacks, but unfortunately their attacks are still going in high numbers,” a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry said.

The World This Week

September 14. Top EU and Chinese officials meet for a virtual summit.

September 14-18. Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union continue.

September 15. Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book Rage is released.

September 17. France’s General Federation of Labor (CGT) trade union begins a general strike over wages and employment conditions.

September 18. The state of emergency in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, called after last month’s deadly explosions, is set to expire.

September 20. U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order banning the Chinese messaging app WeChat is due to take effect.

What We’re Following Today 

Japan’s new leader. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party chose Yoshihide Suga as its new leader earlier today. Suga, who served as a top spokesman for the government over the past eight years, was elected to lead the ruling LDP by a large margin following the resignation of Shinzo Abe and he is expected to become prime minister after the LDP-dominated parliament confirms him later this week.

LDP members from both houses of parliament and local party representatives gave Suga 377 out of 534 votes. Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, came in second with just 89 votes.

But Suga could face voters at the polls soon. Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister, is one of several LDP leaders to suggest that a general election could be imminent.

Fallout of normalization in Bahrain. Some prominent Bahrainis have voiced their opposition to the country’s recent deal normalizing relations with Israel. The Iran-based scholar Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim said that the deal contravenes the will of the people, saying that “there is a great divergence between the rulers and the ruled in thought, mind, aims and interests.” Several political and civil society groups in the country echoed that sentiment, rejecting the deal in a joint statement and warning that it would “not enjoy popular backing.”

Efforts at normalization have received significant pushback since the United Arab Emirates signed its historic deal with Israel last month. Protesters in the occupied Palestinian territories have taken to the streets to rally against the moves, and citizens of many other Arab countries have also voiced their opposition.

Lukashenko meets with Putin. More than 100,000 protesters flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Sunday in one of the largest demonstrations against the rule of longtime President Aleksandr Lukashenko since his disputed victory in last month’s presidential elections. Police said they detained 400 people during the protests.

The demonstrations came before a meeting between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for today, during which they will reportedly discuss deeper integration of their two countries. Lukashenko’s relations with Moscow had deteriorated in the months leading up to the election, but he has since warmed to Moscow again as the threat to his reign has grown more acute. Putin recently confirmed that he would send a reserve police force to Belarus if Lukashenko requested it.

Boris on the ropes. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to face mounting criticism over his Conservative government’s ongoing effort to override key parts of last year’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, which many observers contend could threaten peace and stability in Northern Ireland. On Saturday, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major both weighed in on the move, co-authoring an article in which they warned that the bill threatens “the very integrity of our nation.”

At least 20 Conservative members of parliament are expected to rally behind an amendment to the bill, part of the opposition’s strategy to tone down the legislation. But as Owen Matthews reported for Foreign Policy, Johnson and his team are moving on full-steam ahead. They “seem to be betting that the threat of disruption to EU businesses from a no-deal Brexit will be enough to focus minds in Brussels and force concessions,” he wrote.

Keep an Eye On

Political strain in Mali. The uncertainty surrounding the political situation in Mali continues despite a meeting last week between members of the ruling junta and political and civil society leaders aimed at finding a way out of the crisis. At the conclusion of those talks on Saturday, the coup leaders proposed a plan to appoint a transitional government led by either a civilian or a military leader for a period of 18 months.

The possibility that a military leader could lead the government was seen as a way for the junta to hang onto power. On Sunday, the opposition June 5 Movement rejected the proposal, accusing the junta of having a “desire to monopolize and confiscate power.”

Pushback over new Greek migrant camp. Greek authorities said they will build a permanent refugee camp on the island of Lesbos after a major site burned down last week, sparking protests against the move by islanders and refugees. The fire that destroyed Moria camp, which is notorious for its overcrowded and poor conditions, left some 12,000 migrants homeless. Greece’s decision to rebuild the camp has been met with fierce opposition from protesters. Refugees hope to be relocated to other countries in the European Union, while locals have railed against the negative impact the camp has had on the local community.

Odds and Ends

A lock of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s hair was sold at an auction in Boston, Massachusetts, along with a blood-stained telegram for more than $81,000. The lock was removed during Lincoln’s postmortem examination after his assassination in 1865 and was given to Dr. Lyman Beecher Todd, a cousin of Lincoln’s widow.

That’s it for today. 

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 Photo credit: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

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