Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan recently declared the latest round of talks between the US and the Taliban as the “most productive” so far. Reporting “substantive” progress on all four key issues, the discussions have broadened to include timelines for intra-Afghan dialogue and a cease fire. The two other issues are the Taliban guarantees not to harbour foreign militants, and American troops withdrawal timelines.
Major differences on substantive issues still remain. The Taliban are reportedly insisting on a 6-month schedule whereas the US is seeking a 30-month timeline for withdrawal of its troops. The Taliban also want an Islamic government without explicitly defining it. No one wants the return of puritan Taliban rule. And Taliban too seem to have evolved into a more mature and much less dogmatic group. Sharp differences over the timing of the comprehensive ceasefire also remain. The US wants an early cessation of hostilities while the Taliban want to continue their military putsch to maintain their leverage in negotiations.
As the US-Afghan talks concluded, a two-day inter-Afghan talks were held in Qatar. Attending in their personal capacities, 64 people came from Kabul to speak with the Taliban. They included senior members of the government, Mujahideen who had fought the Soviets, former government officials, former ambassadors, civil society representatives and a few women. Reports indicate that the meeting turned into a ‘respectful’ conversation among Afghans about their shared future. Issuing a joint statement to eliminate civilian casualties, these talks indicate that the Taliban are prepared to become part of the mainstream politics too, albeit on own their terms.
The Taliban, which had repeatedly refused to negotiate with the US backed Kabul regime, agreed to the meeting on the condition that the attendees do so in their personal capacity and not as representatives of the regime. The Taliban consider the Kabul regime as US ‘puppets’ leading to their exclusion from the US-Taliban negotiations. A similar meeting was called off earlier in May when the Taliban refused to meet a 250-member group, which Kabul intended to send for the dialogue.
By enabling senior members of the Kabul regime, even in their personal capacities, to meet with the Taliban, Khalilzad hopes, will allow either side to know the other which he hopes will lead to negotiations.
At the end of intra-Afghan talks Khalilzad met the Taliban again before he departed for the US. Following these meetings there is a growing anticipation that the parties will soon announce an interim deal that is likely to state a timeline for the US troop withdrawal in exchange of Taliban formal declaration that the Afghan territory will not be used harbouring foreign militants. This will then link with the other two contentious issues — Taliban commitment to negotiate with the Kabul regime likely indirectly and other factions and mutual commitment to de-escalate or even ceasefire. The strength of the linkages between the first two items and the two more difficult parts — intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire — would be the litmus test of any agreement, according to the Brussels based think tank International Crises Group (ICG). An agreement that is clear on the US-Taliban deal but ambiguous about the Afghan peacemaking to follow might hasten the US withdrawal without a high probability of stability in its wake, adds ICG.
Taliban, which had repeatedly refused to negotiate with the US backed Kabul regime, agreed to the meeting on the condition that the attendees do so in their personal capacity and not as representatives of the regime
Within a week of the intra-Afghan dialogue, four main interested parties US, China, Russia and Pakistan issued a joint statement from Beijing calling for a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue to “produce a peace framework as soon as possible.” This tempers the Taliban ability to push their way to a peace settlement alone that can reduce chances of stable peace in the country.
While negotiations with the US continue, the Taliban military campaign remains full steam. At least 264 pro-government forces and 58 civilians were killed during the week before the intra-Afghan talks in Kabul and in other districts — the highest toll in a week during 2019. Taliban understand the value of maintaining this pressure over the US, which has brought them to talk to the Taliban and seek an exit from Afghanistan. Taliban are sceptical of a ceasefire while negotiations are still going on. They know, firstly that their fighters are not amenable to a cease fire till victory and secondly, if the ceasefire is called before the agreement it will be hard to get back into battle if the talks fail.
With an eye on his re-election prospects, the Trump administration is in haste to reach a peace deal with the Taliban. Reminiscent of the Vietnam negotiations, the US, ostensibly trying to save the remnants of the Kabul regime, has bypassed Kabul and are negotiating directly with the Taliban. With a trillion dollars spent on this war and faced with the Afghan resilience there is only one choice for the US — declare victory and drawdown.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General to Dubai during the mid 1990s.