The most serious and comprehensive effort is currently underway to reach a negotiated settlement for ending the 17-year long war in Afghanistan.
Three rounds of talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States were held in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in July, October and November. The venue was then moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for further talks from December 17. One of the reasons for picking Abu Dhabi as the venue was to enable Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have strained relations with Qatar, to participate and contribute towards the Afghan peace process.
Though regional rivalries was a factor for holding this round of talks in Abu Dhabi in place of Doha, it also had a positive outcome as three more countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became involved in this major initiative to facilitate the peace talks and help bring the Afghan conflict to an end. It was interesting to note that these were the only countries in the world that recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. There was also a general consensus that Pakistan had played a major role in bringing Taliban to the negotiating table in Abu Dhabi so that they could interact not only with the Americans, but also the Saudis and the Emiratis.
The latest round of talks in Abu Dhabi may not have achieved any breakthrough, but the UAE government which hosted the meeting said it had yielded “tangible results that are positive for all parties concerned.”
The UAE statement didn’t provide details, but it said a new round of talks would be held in Abu Dhabi “to complete the reconciliation process.” This sounds optimistic as it could mean that the negotiations were moving in the right direction and hope has been generated that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan could be completed in the next rounds of talks.
Veteran Afghanistan-born US diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, too appeared upbeat as he said he held ‘productive’ meetings in the UAE with Afghan and international partners “to promote intra-Afghan dialogue towards ending the conflict.” He added that he would like to see an agreement charting a roadmap for peace before Afghanistan’s presidential elections due to be held on April 20, 2019.
As if in a hurry and careful not to let any side feel it isn’t being kept updated about his shuttle diplomacy, Khalilzad flew from Abu Dhabi to Islamabad on December 19 to brief Pakistani officials, including Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, about the meetings in the UAE. His next stopover was Kabul where he took the Afghan government on board about the latest round of talks with the Taliban.
The national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah despite its wish has been kept out of the peace talks due to Taliban’s refusal to engage with it. The Afghan government even sent members of its 12-member negotiations team under the leadership of President Ghani’s Chief of Staff Abdul Salam Rahimi to the UAE in the hope that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and the US would be able to convince the Taliban to meet them. Such a meeting didn’t materialise much to the disappointment of the Afghan government, which has been watching from the sidelines as the peace talks between the Taliban and the US continue to gather pace.
Despite President Donald Trump’s announcement of a military-focused new policy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August 2017, the US agreed to engage in a dialogue with Taliban as the latter had persistently made it clear that only Washington had the authority to decide the issue of complete withdrawal of the 17,000-strong US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. In Taliban’s view, the Afghan government is powerless, but President Ghani is still talking big as if he is capable of taking major decisions.
However, Taliban did hold talks in 2015 with Afghan government officials first in Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang province and then in Murree in Pakistan due to the efforts of Beijing and Islamabad.
On its part, the US is seeking to get a seat at the negotiations table for the Afghan government so that the Afghans representing different sides could achieve a settlement in an Afghan-led and owned peace process.
Despite the optimism expressed by Khalilzad and the UAE, there is no indication yet that any real progress has been achieved in the negotiations. Pakistan adopted a cautious approach as it is aware of the wide divergence in the views and goals of Taliban and the US and the Afghan government allied to it. Still Pakistan is hoping that the US criticism and pressure on it would be released after having facilitated the Abu Dhabi talks.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to claim credit for Pakistan and termed President Trump’s letter to him for help in moving forward Khalilzad’s mission as vindication of his stand in the past that the Afghan issue could only be resolved through political rather than military means.
Though Taliban spokesmen insisted that their talks to-date with the US focused on the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan as it was the root-cause of all problems and biggest obstacle to peace, there have been reports that other issues also came up for discussion and consumed time. Taliban also raised the issue of release of its prisoners held by the US in the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prisons and those under the custody of the Afghan government and removal of the names of its members from the UN Security Council’s ‘black-list’. A demand was also made for halt to the airstrikes by the US and Afghan forces on civilians. Another demand is that Taliban be allowed to open a formal office in Qatar.
The US reportedly proposed to the Taliban to accept a ceasefire for at least six months to create the right conditions for the formal peace talks. It also wants Taliban to agree to direct talks with the Afghan government. Sections of the media have reported that the US wants to keep control on two to three military bases in Afghanistan to observe the implementation of a peace agreement. There has been no confirmation from any side on this piece of information.
It is clear that reaching an Afghan peace agreement and getting it implemented is going to be challenging and perhaps improbable, the fact that all sides have agreed to talk and explore a negotiated settlement is in itself an achievement.