Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 233

On December 10-12 in Ashgabat, delegations of Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities and of the opposition northern alliance held direct negotiations for the first time since the July 1999 round in Tashkent. The Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov and his envoy for special missions, Boris Shikhmuradov, played the key role in organizing these negotiations, in which the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, also took part.

Turkmenistan–in common with Afghanistan’s other neighbor, Uzbekistan–is anxious to see an end to the Afghan war and considers that the proposed sanctions against the Taliban authorities could destabilize the situation on Afghanistan’s northern borders. Based on its status of permanent neutrality, Turkmenistan maintains contact both with the Taliban authorities and with the opposition which now holds only 5 percent of Afghanistan’s territory.

Shikhmuradov–who was foreign affairs minister until this year and remains the country’s preeminent diplomat–had shuttled between the sides in preparation for the Ashgabat meeting. The fifth anniversary of the adoption of Turkmenistan’s neutrality provided convenient timing. The key to the timing, however, is the upcoming UN vote on a resolution to strengthen sanctions against the Taliban while exempting the opposition from the sanctions. The Taliban authorities consider that sanctions in that form would prevent the UN from functioning as an even-handed mediator among the Afghan parties. Accordingly, the Talibs threaten to quit the UN-mediated negotiations and to appeal to other potential mediators. Those, specifically, are the Islamic Conference Organization and Turkmenistan. The latter is fully engaged already in facilitating the inter-Afghan negotiations.

The Ashgabat negotiations progressed from indirect talks through Vendrell on the first day to face-to-face talks–labeled “informal”–on the final day. No breakthrough had been been expected and none ensued. Yet signs of progress emerged. The northern alliance agreed with the principle that the Talibs would hold a predominant share of power in any all-Afghan, postconflict government. The Talib side agreed that it would regard the northern alliance as a legitimate political force, unarmed and constructive, once the hostilities cease.

The sides agreed to conduct follow-up talks and focus on confidence-building measures as a basis for a possible ceasefire. That decision–in effect, a sequence reversal–reflects the failure to abide by past ceasefires in the absence of even minimal political confidence (Turkmen Television, Turkmenistan.ru, Bakhtar news agency, AP, Reuters, December 10-12; see the Monitor, September 26, October 13, 30-31, November 9-10).