Yet another round of peace talks between the Taliban and the US delegations has been held in Qatar amid reports that substantive issues have been discussed in a bid to find a negotiated settlement of the long drawn out Afghan conflict.
The fact that the latest round of talks has been extended twice to four days could mean that both sides don’t want to give up the effort and are serious about making the negotiations purposeful. The expectations have risen as the talks haven’t broken off despite disagreements and an earlier stalemate.
The two sides have been talking to each other since July 2018 when senior US State Department official Alice Wells led her team in the first publicly acknowledged meeting with Taliban negotiators. She was replaced when Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US diplomat was appointed special envoy for Afghan reconciliation in September 2018 to lead the peace negotiations. Since then, the 67-year old Khalilzad has been travelling not only to Doha, Qatar, but also other capitals to hold consultations on the Afghan peace process and seek support for his difficult mission.
One of his important destinations has been Pakistan, which has played a widely acknowledged role to facilitate the peace talks. However, there are limits to what Pakistan can do. Pakistan’s limitations with regards to its influence on the Taliban became evident when it tried and failed to persuade the Taliban leadership to send a delegation to Islamabad to hold talks with Khalilzad.
There is no doubt the talks have raised hopes for making war-ravaged Afghanistan peaceful again, but there is also the realisation that getting the warring Afghan groups to reconcile after years of fighting and suffering won’t be easy. The Afghans pitted against each other politically and militarily would have to make a commitment to peace and agree to talk to each other while the outsiders having a stake in Afghanistan could help by sincerely facilitating the process and ensuring non-interference in the country’s affairs. Though there is a broad consensus that the peace process should be Afghan-led and owned, all agree that the Afghans need help from the regional and world powers to make them talk to each other and also become guarantors of a likely peace agreement.
A number of proposals have been floated as the peace talks progressed, though these weren’t necessarily made by the negotiating sides. Analysts, think-tanks and commentators in the media have elaborated how a durable Afghan peace agreement should be like. There has been talk of making a ceasefire to create the right conditions for the peace talks to proceed, putting on the table a reasonable timetable of withdrawal of the US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, formation of an interim government and further delaying the Afghan presidential election now due on July 20, 2019, and deploying international peacekeeping forces or even a small, focused anti-terrorism force to fight global terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
The proposals have triggered a lively debate while the Taliban and the American negotiators have occasionally denied that these have been discussed.
The Taliban demand for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is old and has been the reason for justifying the use of force to push out the American soldiers and those from other Nato member countries. Other Taliban demands include release of their prisoners, removal of names of Taliban members from the US Security Council’s ‘black-list’ and amendments in the constitution to make it more Islamic.
The US has been pushing the Taliban to declare a ceasefire and agree to hold talks with the Afghan government to make it truly Afghan-led. It also wants the Taliban to dissociate from globally designated terrorist groups and provide guarantees that Afghanistan’s soil would not be used in future for undertaking attacks against the US and its allies.
The continued fighting and certain big Taliban attacks recently dampened the expectations that the peace talks could succeed. Grief and resentment was caused in Afghanistan by the Taliban assault on a military base that according to different Afghan officials killed minimum of 36 and maximum 72 security personnel in Wardak province’s capital, Maidan Shahr, located about 44 kilometres west of Kabul. However, this and other Taliban attacks didn’t disrupt the peace talks as all sides to the conflict know that there is no ceasefire yet. The attacks could also be an attempt to attain a position of strength in the peace talks through gains in the battlefield.
In fact, the recent acts of violence and killings underscored the need for focusing on ceasefire and taking other confidence-building measures, including exchange of prisoners.
President Ashraf Ghani was angered that his national unity government has been kept out of the Taliban-US talks due to Taliban opposition. As a consequence, he toughened his position by appointing known anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan figures, Amrullah Saleh and Assadullah Khalid, both top former spymasters, as interior minister and defence minister, respectively. Subsequently, he made Saleh his running-mate in the coming presidential election to send a strong message that his government won’t give many concessions to Taliban.
President Ghani’s junior partner in the government, Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, too has been warning the stakeholders that Taliban want power to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was the name they gave to their government after capturing power in 1996. He also pleaded to the US and its allies not to abandon Afghanistan and its government.
It is true the peace talks have continued for more than six months, but to expect quick results is unrealistic because Afghanistan has been at war for four decades, including the last 18 years after the US invasion in retaliation to the al-Qaeda-sponsored 9/11 attacks. The fact that the warring sides are finally talking peace is an achievement in itself. Also encouraging is the understanding by all sides that a military solution isn’t possible. This has necessitated the need by all concerned to enter into negotiations to achieve some of their objectives through talks instead of fighting.
In fact, there are encouraging signs that the latest round of talks in Qatar could lead to an understanding on how to take forward the peace process. The eight Taliban and the eleven American negotiators are involved in serious negotiations. There is also the realisation that the Afghan government too would have to be involved in the peace talks at some stage as no reconciliation is possible until Afghans belonging to the warring sides start talking to each other.