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Talks with Taliban, again

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s elaborate offer to bring Taliban to the negotiating table has been met with silence so far

Talks with Taliban, again
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Kabul Process conference.

As President Ashraf Ghani’s new offer of talks is elaborate and not vague like the past, Taliban appear to be giving it a closer look. They have yet to formally respond to the offer, though privately Taliban seem to be concerned that this is a trap. From the scheme of things, it looks unlikely that Taliban would unconditionally agree to accept the offer and enter into a dialogue with Kabul at this stage. As both Pakistan and China have backed President Ghani’s peace initiative, Taliban would come under pressure to accept the offer.

The specifics in the Afghan President’s offer include recognising the Taliban as a political party once they come to the negotiations table and announce a ceasefire. He offered security to Taliban families and promised to facilitate the release of Taliban prisoners and removal of their names from the UN Security Council’s black-list after establishing a legal framework for the purpose.

Everyone is waiting for Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada’s mainstream Taliban group to respond to President Ghani’s offer. It isn’t easy for it to reject it outright, so it is possible that the group might come up with certain conditions.

Though the Afghan government has offered unconditional peace talks to the Afghan Taliban in the past as well, President Ghani was more specific this time as he mentioned a number of steps Kabul would take in the event of peace talks. He unveiled his government’s strategy for peace at a conference in Kabul attended by officials from 25 countries and heads of international organisations. This was the second ‘Kabul Process’ regional peace conference aimed at finding a peaceful solution of the Afghan conflict.

Taliban in the past rejected every peace overture by the Afghan government, arguing that it was powerless to take decisions. Instead, Taliban offered to talk directly to the US, the latest offer made about two weeks ago through a letter addressed to the American people. In Taliban’s view, the US is the power behind the Afghan government and talks should rather be held with the Americans than the Afghans who are heavily dependent on Washington for staying in power.

The Afghan President’s new peace bid is at variance with President Donald Trump who recently said this is not the time to hold peace talks with Taliban. It is possible Ghani consulted the US before making the offer to Taliban. The President repeated an earlier offer to Taliban to open an office in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan for holding peace talks, but he didn’t rule out meetings in other countries.

The trust-building measures proposed by President Ghani included prisoners’ swaps, issuing passports to Taliban members to undertake visits and facilitating their access to Taliban office and media. He also offered to consult Taliban on launching major economic development projects in Afghanistan and on governance issues. Though President Ghani argued that he has made no pre-conditions for peace talks with Taliban, his offer isn’t open-ended as the Taliban would need to recognise the Afghan government and respect the rule of law before the steps mentioned by the President are put into practice. There would have to be give-and-take to make things happen. As if trying to offer legitimacy to Taliban in the hope of tempting them to join the peace process, President Ghani argued that the decision to bring peace and stability was in Taliban hands and they could join the government for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Afghanistan.

One of the major points missing in Ghani’s proposals is the presence of nearly 20,000 US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan even though their withdrawal has always been the main demand of Taliban. This has been the main hurdle in persuading Taliban to agree to the peace talks, but Ghani made no mention of it. The one constant Taliban demand all these past years is the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan. This obviously is unacceptable to the US and its allies, particularly the Afghan government that desperately needs international support, both military and economic, to run the country and survive.

Though Taliban have suffered heavy casualties, more so from the intense airstrikes undertaken by US jetfighters, gunship helicopters and drones since President Trump’s announcement of his new, military-focused Afghanistan and South Asia policy last August, the stalemate on the battlefield hasn’t changed. There is no evidence yet that Taliban recruitment and commitment to fight has declined. Until that happens, bringing them to the table for talks would remain a difficult proposition.

The timing of President Ghani’s offer of talks is important as winter is on the way out in Afghanistan and soon Taliban would be preparing to launch their annual spring military offensive. There is a window of opportunity as the warm weather in Afghanistan over the past more than three decades has been known as the traditional fighting season. That would mean more fighting and bloodshed and less chances of peace.

There has been no scaling down of Taliban attacks since the announcement by President Ghani that he wanted a comprehensive peace process involving the Taliban. There have been a number of attacks by Taliban fighters in different parts of the country, including Helmand and Kabul. This could be a reaction to Ghani’s peace overtures even though Taliban have yet to formally reject his proposals. In the Taliban stronghold of Helmand and in neighbouring Urozgan and Farah provinces, a number of suicide strikes and ambushes were reported. In one ambush, Taliban fighters waylaid a convoy transporting government officials and civilians from Kandahar to Urozgan’s capital, Tarinkot. They seized scores of passengers, including soldiers and government employees and the Afghan security forces had to initiate an operation to recover them.

In Kabul, Taliban carried out a vehicle-borne suicide attack against a convoy of foreign forces. Afghan officials said one person was killed and 14 others were wounded. However, the Australian Defence ministry later said three Australian soldiers were wounded in the attack. It also said three persons were killed. However, the Australians didn’t disclose the identity of those killed. The attack in Kabul took place despite stepped up security. The new security plan for Kabul that was enforced recently with more checkpoints, road blockades and checking has added to the woes of citizens.

Though the small Taliban splinter group led by Mulla Mohammad Rasool has backed President Ghani’s peace proposals, it is almost irrelevant due to the fact that it is no longer involved in fighting against the Afghan or foreign forces. Another small Taliban splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, led by Mulla Najeebullah, has rejected Ghani’s offer of talks and termed it a ploy and a trap authored by the US.

However, everyone is waiting for the mainstream Taliban group of Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada to respond positively or negatively to President Ghani’s offer. It isn’t easy for it to reject the offer outright so it is possible the group comes up with certain conditions, including talking to the US to start with for agreement on timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces and then moving on to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

rahimullah yusufzai
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

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