Any peace agreement with the Taliban will depend on the declaration of a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the country’s long war, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan said on Sunday.
But that is easier said than done, Zalmay Khalilzad admitted in an interview with an Afghan news agency. “We are seeking peace and (a) political settlement … We want peace to give us the possibility to withdraw [US troops],” he said.
Khalilzad had just concluded two days of official discussions in Pakistan on how to advance the Afghan peace process, which was started with the help of a ceasefire in June 2018. A new round of peace talks between the Taliban and the US started on Wednesday in Qatar as longtime foes seek to end America’s longest war.
What brought the two bitter enemies to the table?
Initiated by the Afghan government for the duration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the ceasefire set the bed for peace talks.
In July, Taliban officials led by Abbas Stanikzai secretly met with a senior US diplomat, Alice Wells, for a preliminary discussion in Doha to set up a channel between the US officials and Taliban.
But the respite from the ceasefire was shortlived. Intense fighting between armed militants and security forces in Afghanistan, has shrouded the whole endeavour in doubt as both sides seek control over more territory to gain leverage in the talks.
Even now that peace talks are underway—with tentative promises to stop violence in the region— violence and bloodshed continues unabated in Afghanistan.
Although the Afghan government has been calling for peace talks for many years, it wasn’t until November 2018 that the Taliban agreed to meet face-to-face with the US envoys for finding a peaceful solution to nearly 18 years of bloodshed.
The agreement will be arrived at in two phases of talks; one is between the Taliban and the US. Only after this is locked will the Taliban enter into talks with the country’s government, which it still refuses to recognise as legitimate.
Discussions so far
The Taliban and a group of former Afghan officials, including former president Hamid Karzai, met in Moscow in February to discuss the future of the country. Karzai was a part of the bilateral talks undertaken to charter a peace treaty back in 2013; it fell apart when he objected to the Taliban setting up its infamous Doha office with its own flag, calling it an attempt to present the group as a government in exile.
This time, however, separate and simultaneous negotiations between the US and Taliban in Doha were held, thus improving the chances of ending the violence that has ravaged the country over four decades. So far, US officials and Taliban have had five rounds of peace talks in Qatar and the UAE.
During the fifth round in March, both parties “agreed in principle” to comply with Taliban’s chief demand—withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan—in exchange for an assurance that the country won’t be used by foreign militant groups that pose an international security threat.
The sixth round of talks, which was supposed to take place in Doha on April 20, was cancelled due to “mismanagement”, causing the much-needed intra-Afghan talks between the Kabul government and Taliban to also be postponed.
Last Saturday, Khalilzad, an Afghan-born US diplomat, arrived in Kabul to meet President Ashraf Ghani as part of a multi-country tour ahead of his next meeting with the Taliban in Qatar.
Despite trying in recent weeks to foster a dialogue between Ghani and Taliban, he admitted the progress was “not as much as I wanted”. However, both sides have acknowledged that the dialogue is making steady progress.
Hoping to renew the push for direct talks with the Taliban, Ghani opened a grand consultative assembly on Monday, as a final attempt to find common ground despite the Loya Jirga having no legal binding authority.
Missing from the traditional gathering of around 3,000 elders, religious scholars, and prominent statesmen, who will come together amid tight security for four days of discussion in Kabul, are the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, Karim Khalili, former national security adviser Hanif Atmar, and Karzai himself.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reiterated Tuesday his country has arranged the US-Taliban dialogue by bringing insurgent leaders to the negotiating table to assist in international efforts to establish lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad was assured of Pakistan’s support necessary for a comprehensive settlement in the region, an essential part of which is “the need to accelerate intra-Afghan peace talks as well as a reduction in violence”, the US Mission’s statement added.
Interestingly, a number of Afghan women are expected to be a part of the Taliban delegation in Qatar, for the first time in the conservative group’s history. “These women have no family relations with the senior members of the Taliban; they are normal Afghans, from inside and outside the country, who have been supporters and part of the struggle of the Islamic emirate [of Afghanistan],” a Taliban spokesperson was reported as saying.
1. Future of Afghan society hangs in the balance
The Afghan government, billed as a puppet regime controlled by the US, is notably absent from the talks.
Denounced as illegitimate by the Taliban, the Afghan government that has managed to restore a semblance of democracy to the land over the last 18 years, faces an uncertain future following US’ departure.
For many observers, therefore, the negotiations are a defeat, as they acknowledge that the Taliban has not only survived but is likely to play a determining role in Afghanistan’s future.
This is cause for legitimate fear because most of Taliban cadres have spent their entire lives at war and lack experience in governing a diverse society during peacetime. The terror and scepticism are particularly justified for women, who found themselves totally excluded from public life the last time the Taliban was in power.
The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy has often missed its mark, but small and important advances were certainly made ever since the Taliban was deposed, especially in terms of education, civil liberties, and women’s rights. Endemic poverty, government corruption, and violence have, however, lessened the impact of these reforms.
Nonetheless, a young, urban generation of Afghans has grown up accustomed to having at least some basic freedoms and opportunities that were not possible under the Taliban regime. It is thus unclear what would happen if the post-peace treaty government includes the Taliban.
2. The US factor
The Taliban regime was dislodged when the US launched a fierce offensive after the September 11 attacks in 2001, culminating in the country’s longest-running war.
There are about 14,000 US troops presently in Afghanistan, as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission for training and assisting the Afghan government’s security forces in their tussle not only with Taliban fighters but other extremist groups, such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
President Donald Trump has been quite eager of late, to reach an agreement to end the occupation. But the hurried pace of negotiations has stoked fears that the US is looking for a quick exit to save costs, even if it means leaving Afghan civilians exposed to armed conflict between political factions and militant groups. A hasty American withdrawal will jeopardise hard-won gains, such as constitutional rights, citizens’ rights, and democratic institutions, writes the New York Times.
Others have also impressed upon the impact US’ decision to reduce staff at its Kabul embassy by half next month could have on the fragile peace process.
3. Lack of commitment
Reports have shown that the Taliban has slowly inched its way back onto the map, now controlling and influencing more territory than it had since 2001; it recently launched its Al-Fath (Victory) offensive to increase its areas of control.
There is no clarity on how the Taliban would prevent extremists from using Afghanistan to launch attacks, as al-Qaeda did in 2001. Leaders of the Taliban have also not made any evident commitment either to the US or the Afghan government, keeping up its campaign of violence instead and undermining the progress of the peace process.
So far, only the Taliban has benefited from peace talks
The US has been formally engaged in peace talks with the Taliban since 2011, with then President Barack Obama confirming that the United Nations Security Council will be splitting the sanctions list between members of al-Qaeda and Taliban.
The UN further removed sanctions on 14 key Taliban members, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Anas Haqqani, and Abbas Stanikzai and ratified the release of Taliban members from prison with access to passports, immunity to travel, lavish homes, and Afghan consulate services in Qatar—as part of the peace process.
To facilitate the reconciliation process, the US and Afghan governments also opened a political office for the Taliban in Doha (not to be confused with Taliban’s own headquarters set up two years ago, also in the Qatari capital).
Uncertain times ahead
A long-lasting peace agreement will have to include all warring parties, society (including ethnic minorities, women, and youth) and major regional and international stakeholders. The failure of the Geneva Accords, the Peshawar Accord of 1992, and the 2001 Bonn Agreement serves as a testament to that fact.
Although the last five rounds of talks have increased the momentum for resolution, the prospect of a final communique is distant, and the idea of a peaceful Afghanistan is far from realistic—as long as the Taliban maintains its ties with other terrorist groups and sponsors of terrorism. For this endeavour to succeed, the group has to agree and abide by a ceasefire and join the intra-Afghan peace talks.
How India figures in all this
The political instability in Afghanistan’s immediate vicinity may also play a role in bungling the attempt at brokering peace. The recent India-Pakistan conflagration over Kashmir after the Pulwama attack, for example, exposed the treacherous fault lines in one of the world’s most dangerous regions, France24 wrote in March.
“The continuation of such conflict will affect the Afghanistan peace process,” Reuters quoted Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid as saying, although that turned out to be an unofficial comment. But as SOAS lecturer Avinash Paliwal sees it, there has always been a concern that Pakistan, which habitually uses but denies using militant groups to destabilise its neighbours, could leverage the Afghanistan theatre as a bargaining chip, “not just with India but also the world community”.
Then, there is the other probable outcome of US demilitarisation. As the US military role and the NATO presence in Afghanistan starts winding down, a lot of Pakistan-based militant groups will have an incentive to redirect their focus to India.
Michael Kugelman from the Washington DC-based Wilson Center said in an interview, “Groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that were operating in Afghanistan no longer have Western troops to target, giving them the motivation to refocus their attention on India-administered Kashmir.”
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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