Afghan Taliban fighters load a multiple rocket launcher as they prepare to fire at positions held by the Northern Alliance from a position 25 km north of Kabul in this November 10, 1996 file photograph. Image Credit: Reuters

Peshawar: The ongoing talks between Taliban and the US are the most serious effort so far to reach a negotiated settlement for ending the 17-year-long Afghan war. After three rounds of talks that began in July 2018, the venue moved to Abu Dhabi on December 17. Here is a closer look at the issues surrounding the Afghan conflict:

Why is the US part of the Taliban-Afghan government talks?

The US agreed to engage in dialogue with Taliban in response to the latter’s persistent demand that only Washington can decide the issue of withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to refuse talks with the Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Gani and chief executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, arguing that it was powerless to take major decisions. However, the US is keen to bring Kabul to the negotiations table as it wants the Afghans belonging to all sides to reach a settlement in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Is the violence getting worse?

Since the US-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has never been as insecure as it is now. The Taliban control more territory than at any point since the removal of their regime 17 years ago. The Afghan war has already become the longest war in US history. With the passage of time, the conflict has not only become more intense — it has also become more complicated. The attacks are becoming bigger, more frequent, more widespread and deadlier. But after 17 years of fighting that didn’t lead to a US-led Nato military victory against Taliban, US President Donald Trump seems to have finally decided to seek a negotiated political solution to end the Afghan conflict. The Taliban too expressed readiness for holding talks as fighting an endless war with no sign of outright victory for any side was exacting a heavy toll of Taliban fighters.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban emerged in the autumn of 1994 in Afghanistan’s south-western Kandahar province and made a bid for power locally before capturing Kabul in September 1996. Taliban militants are graduates of madrasas, or Islamic schools, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and were led by a village cleric, Mullah Mohammad Omar, en route to becoming a potent fighting force. The Taliban regime collapsed in late 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan to avenge the 9/11 attacks masterminded by Al Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden.

So how have they become so powerful despite the US invasion?

The Taliban started regrouping in 2002 to fight the US-led foreign and Afghan forces and gradually extended control over large swathes of territory in Afghanistan. There is concern among many Afghans that the gains made by Afghanistan in terms of democracy, as well as human and women’s rights and civil liberties in the post-Taliban period could be lost if the Taliban joined the government as a result of a power-sharing agreement. The Taliban has tried to allay these fears, but its past record in power has done little to reassure most Afghans.

Have there been peace efforts in the past?

Though the Taliban don’t want to talk to the Afghan government until an agreement is reached on the timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the group has held talks with Kabul in the past. On July 7, 2015, one round of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban was organised by Pakistan in the summer hill resort of Murree near Islamabad. Shortly before that, the two sides had met in the Chinese city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province due to the joint efforts of China and Pakistan. However, no headway was made in these one-off meetings, with no second round of talks ever materialising.