In Focus: Analyzing the Afghan Peace Talks
The ongoing Afghan peace talks, known as Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, began in early September. Set in Doha, Qatar, it is the first time an Afghan government is in direct, formal talks with the Taliban. Though it is monumental that the Taliban, Afghan government, and allies have all agreed to come to the negotiating table, much remains disputed, such as Islamic jurisprudence and the role of women in society.
Using the Zignal Media Intelligence Cloud to analyze social media conversations  about the peace talks can help policy practitioners gear their diplomatic efforts by understanding regional interests and themes that underpin the Taliban’s bargaining position. 
- Pakistani Influence: India and Pakistan demonstrate competing positions about the peace talks. Pakistani rhetoric, however, enabled by President Khan and Pakistani media conglomerates, dominates the conversation.
- The Female Question: Women’s rights are at the center of the peace talks, discussed in 20.2K out of an overall 85.8K mentions by social media accounts from August 1 – October 9, 2020. As negotiations progress, there are major concerns about the integration of women and women’s rights in Afghanistan’s future government.
- Taliban Media: Analysis of Taliban media shows three key themes:
1) Its desire for the end of foreign occupation and interference, 2) Its current disputes with the Kabul government, and 3) Its lack of interest and discussion about the rights of Afghan women.
The voices with the most Twitter engagement regarding the talks are Pakistan’s President Imran Khan, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the U.S. Representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, and Iranian official Nasreddin Kiyan. High levels of engagement with President Khan and the trending story from AP News (as seen in Figure A) highlight the powerful role that Pakistan has played in negotiations. Tension between India and Pakistan around the future of Afghanistan has been a persistent friction point for decades. The Global Village Space’s  article, which states that India is intentionally aiming to spoil the talks, contributes to this narrative of competing objectives between these two regional powers.
Zignal Influence Intelligence visualizations reveal the titles of the most shared articles online by clusters: “Afghan peace negotiator urges new era in ties with Pakistan,” “India supporting terrorists in Afghanistan to spoil peace process,” retweeted by Pakistani and/or pro-Imran Khan users, “Pull the plug on the Taliban talks,” and “Afghan women leader makes it to Nobel frontrunner list,” referring to Fawzia Koofi, a negotiator in the talks. India and Pakistan, as expected, are attempting to shape the peace talks.
The Female Question
Amongst other underrepresented groups in Afghanistan, women experienced great tumult under the Taliban’s rule in the late 90s and were able to acquire rights and representation thanks to changes implemented in 2001. However, discrimination against women subsists and has the potential for escalation under a new Afghan government. 
Zignal’s Discover shows the centrality of women’s rights to both the peace talks and the Taliban. A spike in volume for both graphs occurred on September 12, 2020, with 1,418 mentions of women in relation to the peace talks. Leading news stories shared by different Twitter users include: The Guardian’s article about women being at increased risk of extremist attacks in Afghanistan, NBC’s reporting on how U.S .lawmakers interrogated U.S. Representative Zalmay Khalilzad about jeopardizing women’s rights to secure a deal, and a Reuters article about how negotiators have differing opinions about women’s rights and a cease-fire.
The Historical Sentiment graph above plots the online perception of Afghan women’s rights. The timeline begins when the Doha Agreement  was signed on February 29, 2020, and continues to October 1, 2020. This chart illustrates how both positive and negative sentiment regarding the role of women in Afghan peace negotiations has skyrocketed, with a slightly steeper recent increase in negative sentiment. The positive increase is due to Fawzia Koofi, the first woman Deputy Speaker in Parliament and negotiator’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, while the minute negative increase is a result of fears of female political erasure after the imminent end of the U.S.’ presence.
Figure E shows that Taliban-affiliated social and media accounts had 50% negative sentiment about the peace talks in comparison to general discussion of the peace talks in Afghanistan, Qatar, India, and Pakistan, which were 48% negative. While these numbers are similar, the Taliban’s media accounts are far less positive than regional discussion of the peace talks. Furthermore, popular tweets from the Taliban’s media reveal that the insurgency remains committed to an independent Islamic system, free from foreign powers, a notion with the potential to derail the peace talks.
Zignal’s Trending Stories widget shows the most-shared articles by Taliban-associated accounts. Alemarah, which is the Taliban’s official website and source for public-facing propaganda, has its articles frequently shared by social media accounts. These pieces cover a range of topics, including how the Doha agreement should not be the main premise of the peace talks, the release of four Taliban fighters from prison, and false propaganda launched by the Kabul administration to undermine the Taliban’s efforts for peace.
The Taliban media’s perception of U.S. troops and Afghan women (in relation to representation) are displayed in Figure H. Sentiment about U.S. troop-related news is overwhelmingly negative, as accounts deride and reject reports that claim that the Taliban made a secret deal with the U.S .regarding the transition of power. Compared with the sentiment breakdown of the second bar chart, the Taliban appear more amenable to accommodate women’s rights than US troops.
The High Council for National Reconciliation presents a critical opportunity for the Afghan government and the Taliban to secure a stable and lasting peace for Afghanistan. Zignal Labs’ technology surfaces which themes are critical to the negotiation, enabling U.S. stakeholders to factor in the overarching sentiments of the Taliban side by monitoring their affiliated social media and other media outlets. The Zignal platform also allows policy professionals to develop a deep understanding of which competing regional interests to address in pursuing conflict resolution. Similarly, it can unpack some of the most divisive issues among belligerents to improve US stakeholders’ likelihood of fruitful peace talks.
For other insights and analysis of timely topics, read our other Intelligence Briefs on our Reports page.
 Zignal Labs ingested historic data from January 2, 2020 – October 19, 2020.
 For data analytics purposes, Zignal ingested content in English, Hindi, Pashto, and Arabic, specifically from the countries of Afghanistan, Qatar, India, and Pakistan for locally-based insights.
 Online news portal and monthly magazine of politics and current affairs based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
 The Doha Agreement established conditional peace between the US and the Taliban guaranteeing the withdrawal of all foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban uphold their end of the deal.