Hope blossoms in spring as Afghans keep close eye on peace talks

Asasabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan – The arrival of spring has turned the fields green in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar, which shares a border with Pakistan. 

Bukharis, traditional Afghan heaters, have been switched off as the rapeseed blossoms. 

As well as picturesque landscapes, with spring comes a new fighting season in Afghanistan. Every year, around this time, the Taliban announce their offensive.

“It is not the announcement of the Taliban spring offensive that keeps us worried,” Nur Alam, an elderly man in Asadabad, told Al Jazeera. “This year, all our attention is on the peace talks”.

Since last February, US and Taliban representatives have held several rounds of talks in Doha, the Qatari capital where the group has an office, to set the terms of a possible peace deal, leading to hopes that the new fighting season may not even begin.

But according to Barnett Rubin, an expert with New York University’s Center for International Cooperation and a former adviser to the State Department and the United Nations,

“if an agreement on the troop withdrawal will not be reached and the Taliban will announce the spring offensive, it will be intense as ever.”

On April 7, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad issued a statement before leaving Kabul where he underscored the need to “reduce violence across Afghanistan” in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the streets are full of chatter about the peace talks, and what they might mean for unstable provinces like Kunar.

“We have been waiting for about 40 years for some security and prosperity,” said Haji Nazeer Ahmad Pasarly, who lives in Dangam, a district in Kunar’s east. “The talks have already had a strong impact on the Taliban, their fighting has certainly deescalated.” 

Others in Kunar share his sense of optimism.

Nur Alam, 60, says the Taliban should promote women’s freedom if the group ends up sharing any power [Laura Cesaretti/Al Jazeera]

The idea of reconciliation is integral to Afghan cultural society. Instruments like the Jirgas, a democratic form of assembly used by Pashtuns to resolve disputes and community issues, have set the terms of resolutions for centuries. 

The negotiations in Doha, many in Kunar believe, are simply a continuation of this tradition.

The three main tribes who control the region, Safi, Mamond and Shinwari, have negotiated with fighters since the Soviet invasion and past civil war.

“Three years ago, the Taliban did an offensive which kept civilians hiding in their home for five days,” said Alam, the elderly man. “Civilians were starving. The provincial government call us to find an agreement with the Taliban and stop the fight. And we did.”

There is hope that discussions in Doha and Washington will have similar outcomes.

“We are all Muslim,” said Alam. “Our only concern is that they (Taliban) should allow our women to be [doctors], technicians, or any other [professionals]. If they accept that, there will be no an obstacle to peace.”

In this rural, impoverished land, subjected to drone attacks and constant clashes between different groups, peace is a necessity.

According to locals, 80 percent of the province is under fighters’ control, leaving 20 percent is in the hand of the government.

Afghan forces have official control, but are surrounded by fighters.

On the highway that connects to Jalalabad then Kabul, there are checkpoints at about every kilometre.

“If peace really happens, and all the Taliban will join the government, ISIL has little future here,” said Alam. “But if the peace negotiation fails, a new season of anarchy will probably start.” 

Despite being a recent phenomenon, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) has a presence in Kunar. 

Residents told Al Jazeera that some foreign ISIL fighters have built ties with the population, marrying local women, and said in valleys like Mazar, the group is making attempts at state-building, running courts and tax systems.

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these claims.

The Kunar landscape as Spring sets in [Laura Cesaretti/Al Jazeera]

The valleys where ISIL reportedly has a strong presence, like Mazar and Dewagal, and in the mountainous areas of Narang, Watapur, Nurgal, and Sarkano, have typically low populations.

But, contrary to the Taliban, who usually rule alongside the government, ISIL has not allowed governmental facilities to run in their areas under their control.

“The [ISIL] has taken advantage of the conflict between the Taliban on one side of the government and the United State on the other, to find the areas where it can establish itself,” said Rubin. “If the war … ends, it will be much harder for the [ISIL].”

Some locals tend to agree.

“When [ISIL] arrived to the land, the nation decided we will not let them spread,” said Pasarly. “We are already suffering from a war, and this will cause clashes and further bloodshed. This is why in upper Kunar, the districts of Shigal, Shultan, Asmar, Ghazi Abad, Nari, Dangam, and Marawara stand side-by-side with the Taliban. 

“In the rest of Kunar, there are some [ISIL fighters], but they remain a minority. If peace happens, lower Kunar will not let them be there.”

There is further concern, however, because since ISIL established a footprint in eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of Taliban fighters have defected.

“It was because ISIL is getting more funds,” said Malik Abdul Wali Fazeli.

Afghans fear that if some Taliban fighters refuse to accept the peace talks, they might, too, join ISIL.

The Taliban controls more territory now compared with any other time since the September 11 attack, the event which led to the 2001 US-led invasion.

If a peace deal is struck, SIGAR recently said up to 60,000 Taliban fighters and their families could be reintegrated into Afghan society.

At least 500,000 people live in Kunar Province, with Asasabad as its capital [Laura Cesaretti/Al Jazeera]

Thomas Ruttig, cofounder of Afghanistan Analysts Network, is sceptical about the effect talks will have on stemming the bloodshed. 

The logic of fighting and talking at the same time has been ingrained too deeply already, he said, adding that both sides assume they need to talk from a position of military strength. 

“Freelance splinter groups [could] emerge as additional actors when a decommissioning process follows a peace agreement,” he said. “[This is] not economically supported because the US [will] just walk away after a deal.” 

The Taliban, ISIL and other groups could deploy more forces in Kunar, and more broadly Afghanistan. 

Back in Kunar, Alam, the elderly Afghan, said: “Jihad started in Kunar, but we do not where it will end.”

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