As the Pakistan and Qatar-facilitated peace talks between the Taliban and the US entered a decisive phase, there were two new developments that could impact the course of the Afghan peace process.
One, the letter reportedly written by President Ashraf Ghani to his American counterpart, Donald Trump, asking him not to make a hasty deal with the Taliban for withdrawing all the US forces from Afghanistan. According to the New York Times report that quoted Afghan officials, Ghani proposed a meeting between officials from the two countries to discuss the possibility of reducing costs for US forces in Afghanistan by as much as $2 billion a year and bringing down the number of troops from the existing 14,000 to a more efficient level of about 3,000.
Ghani, who seems to be jittery about a quick pullout of US troops that an impulsive and unpredictable Trump may order, handed over the letter to senior US State Department official, Alice Wells, who met him in Kabul recently. The fact the letter was delivered to her instead of Khalilzad apparently shows the lack of trust between the latter and Ghani, who is angry that his government was kept out of the ongoing peace talks due to Taliban opposition. Media reports from Kabul have mentioned that the recent meetings between Ghani and Khalilzad lacked warmth.
Alice Wells had held the ice-breaking, first round of peace talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in July 2018 before she was replaced by veteran Afghan-born US diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was appointed in September as a special envoy for Afghan reconciliation.
Ghani’s latest position is widely different from his earlier statements in which he put up a brave front by claiming that the pullout of US-led foreign forces won’t have an impact on the Afghan security forces. He pointed out recently that most of the fighting since his installation as president in 2014 is being done by his troops as 45,000 during this period lost their lives defending the country. Such a high figure of casualties had neither been reported nor acknowledged until now and it could not only demoralise the Afghan security forces, but also embolden the increasingly confident Taliban.
Unlike the Afghan President who wants the US forces to stay longer in Afghanistan, the Taliban had earlier in August 2017 written an open letter to Trump to advise him to adopt the wise solution to deliver US forces from harm’s way by ordering a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obviously, the withdrawal of the 14,000 US troops, together with the 8,000 provided by 38 other countries, including Nato members, would help the Taliban cause as they could push for making further gains on the battleground.
The gains made by the Taliban constitute the second new development in Afghanistan in terms of the situation on the ground. Though there were clear signs that the Taliban were steadily making territorial gains and the Afghan security forces were retreating, a new quarterly report by an American agency has given the stamp of approval to these observations. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that by October 2018 only 53.8 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts covering 63.5 percent of the population were in government’s control. The rest were controlled or contested by the Taliban. This clearly showed reduction in area under government control and increase in Taliban-held districts. The SIGAR report also said Afghan forces had decreased in numbers to 308,693, or 87.7 percent of its strength. It was the lowest figure since January 2015 when the Nato began training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.
By controlling or influencing nearly half of Afghanistan’s territory, Taliban could use their strengthened military position to bargain hard and obtain better terms in the peace talks. In their talks with the US during the nearly last seven months, Taliban conceded little and got more. By making a commitment that Afghanistan’s soil won’t be used in future for undertaking attacks against the US and other countries and which Khalilzad found satisfactory, Taliban reiterated something they have been promising since long. In return, Taliban got the US to commit to withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan.
Though the timeframe of the pullout is still not final and Taliban have denied that it would happen in 18 months rather than sooner as they want, the two sides have in principle agreed that foreign forces would leave once a peace agreement is negotiated.
There has been lot of talk about the other points of agreement or disagreement in the ongoing Taliban-US talks. Many questions are being asked due to the general disbelief that the long drawn out Afghan conflict could finally end to enable Afghanistan to return to peace and normalcy. It is being predicted that more challenging than the Taliban-US talks would be the negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban.
Though Khalilzad reported significant progress in his 11-member delegation’s latest round of talks with the eight-member Taliban team in Doha and revealed that the framework of a peace deal had been agreed upon, subsequent statements by him and other US officials showed that they were making the foreign forces’ withdrawal conditional with Taliban acceptance of a ceasefire.
The issue of ceasefire is critical as Taliban see it as a weapon to force the US forces’ withdrawal. The US, on the other hand, believes it cannot start pulling out until a ceasefire is observed so that its forces and those of the Afghan government aren’t subjected to further attacks. The Americans want a face-saving solution instead of being made to look like losers in the nearly 18-year long and unwinnable war.
If Taliban sources are to be believed, Taliban want the ceasefire to be enforced once the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces begins. The US is insisting that ceasefire should begin the day the peace agreement is inked.
Other contentious issues include the timing of Taliban willingness to start talking to the Afghan government which they consider a ‘puppet’ of the US and powerless to take major decisions, such as withdrawal of foreign ‘occupying’ forces. The US would like the Taliban to settle all political matters, including any amendments in Afghanistan’s constitution, in direct talks with the Afghan government.
Though both Khalilzad and Taliban have denied discussing or reaching an agreement on the formation of a transitional government, many see it as an essential component of a peace accord so that a neutral administration is installed to carry out the required reforms in the system of governance and hold elections once a roadmap of peace is agreed upon. President Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah have rejected formation of an interim government.
The next Afghan presidential election scheduled to be held on July 20 this year after a three-month delay could also complicate the situation. A further delay may become necessary to make the peace process implementable, but Ghani, Abdullah and certain other presidential contenders have ruled out this possibility. Ghani is also seen by some of the candidates as an impediment to the peace process. All this means the peace talks won’t reach a successful conclusion unless all possible hurdles are overcome. For this to happen, the Taliban and the US would have to stay the course on the long road to peace.