Prague, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The warring sides in Afghanistan are set to hold a new round of peace talks in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. But regional experts are giving gloomy assessments of the progress that might be made there.
The talks, starting tomorrow, have been arranged by the United Nations special envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi. They bring together representatives of the Taliban Islamic militia, which controls some 90 percent of Afghan territory, and the northern opposition led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, which is loyal to ousted Afghan President Burhannudin Rabbani.
The peace talks mark a rare face-to-face encounter between the two sides. A foundation for them was laid at a preliminary meeting in the Turkmen capital last month, and with the spring thaw underway, they take on extra urgency. That's because with the better weather there is almost certain to be an upsurge in the fighting.
The fact that the two sides are meeting is in itself a positive development, but commentators doubt there will be easy progress in Ashgabat. Bangkok-based analyst Paul Davis, who writes for Jane's military publishing group, gives his assessment to RFE/RL:
"The problem is that they will be talking largely at cross purposes. It is already clear that the northern opposition are interested in focusing on what the international community has also been pushing for, namely a broad-based government which would include various groups and parties along with the Taliban in Kabul. However the Taliban has made it quite clear that they regard their own government in Kabul as fully representative of all Afghanistan's ethnic groups, and the political factions which remain in the north, they regard as irrelevant."
Davis says the problem for the UN therefore will be to avoid a situation in which the two sides simply talk past each other.
RFE/RL Central Asia analyst Bruce Pannier agrees that no one expects a major breakthrough, not even special envoy Brahimi. He says that instead the UN will be seeking progress in more modest terms:
"Most of this is going to be some kind of confidence building measures, that is, trying to get a ceasefire at least for a month or two, especially with the spring offensives coming. Both sides are planning offensives right now, so I imagine the UN will try to get them to agree to a halt in hostilities which will include some kind of prisoner exchange, and to agree to further talks to conclude some kind of longer truce. "
The military situation is not likely to encourage either side to engage in serious negotiations. That's because both sides can draw at least some encouragement from their respective positions. Davis notes the Taliban last summer and autumn made sweeping advances, overrunning the whole of the northwest and central area of Afghanistan, leaving Masoud's forces largely isolated in three northeastern provinces. The Taliban might well be encouraged to think therefore that they can finish the job this spring and summer, and finally suppress the northern opposition.
On the other hand, Masoud will certainly continue to resist the Taliban. His forces are well armed and his long history of successful guerrilla campaigning in the mountains provides him with ample grounds to consider he can continue to fight on successfully. Pannier says however that both sides would probably welcome at least a delay in the start of military activity:
"Afghanistan has certainly had enough problems caused by nature in the last few months. There have been earthquakes, and floods and outbreaks of what is now being called the 'flu' -- but it has taken its toll on people in rural areas -- and for those reasons I would imagine it is in the interest of both sides to delay fighting as long as possible."
Davis adds another reason, namely that the Taliban lack a secure grip over some of the territory which has recently come under their sway:
"It's clear that in the areas they overran in the late summer and autumn of last year, the Taliban do not have full control. They control the cities, the towns and the lines of communications between them. But it's quite clear that the opposition, both Shia Huzzara and Uzbek, is continuing to stage guerrilla activities in those areas, and this will further reinforce Masoud's likely attitude that the Taliban can not only be checked, but rolled back".
With the prospect of yet more conflict in trouble-wracked Afghanistan, UN special envoy Brahimi last week appealed to the warring sides not to disappoint the Afghan people "once again". In remarks to journalists, he urged the rivals in the name of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to attend the talks with a spirit of compromise and understanding, patience and a constructive approach.
Brahimi also appealed to Afghanistan's neighbors to help the talks succeed. The "Six Plus Two" group, meaning the six countries neighboring Afghanistan, plus the United States and Russia, is active in that role.