IN what is being described as the most tangible step forward in the Afghan peace talks, US officials and the Afghan Taliban seem to have come close to a deal on a draft framework that could bring to an end America’s longest war. Although there are still major obstacles in the way, sustained negotiations between the two sides have paved the path to a final agreement on the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
Significantly, the breakthrough came after the talks had hit a frustrating stalemate earlier, with the Taliban threatening to pull out from the negotiations entirely, leading to a toughening of the US tone. Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, had even indicated that the US would increase military pressure in order to force the Taliban to return to the negotiating table.
It all happened after a meeting between US and Taliban representatives late last year in Abu Dhabi, and attended by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, ended on a positive note. However, the Taliban’s refusal to meet representatives of the Kabul government who were present in the city clouded the outcome and the mood.
Some reports suggested that Khalilzad had received guarantees from Saudi Arabia that the Taliban would enter into direct talks with the Kabul government. But at the last moment, the Taliban backed out of their promise and reinforced reservations among various Afghan factions that the peace process would go nowhere without the Taliban showing some flexibility. The Taliban turndown particularly infuriated Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who had sent his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, to the UAE.
Will the Taliban agree to a ceasefire and sit across the table with the Kabul government?
Yet another setback to the fragile negotiating process came when the Taliban rejected a January meeting expected to take place in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban officials said there was no decision taken on the location. At the core of the Taliban refusal was a long-held suspicion of US motivations. The Taliban accused the US of duplicity and of reneging on the agreement reached in previous meetings.
A major point of contention stalling the talks was the insistence of the Taliban that the US should stick to what it claims was the ‘agreed agenda’ of discussing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing Afghan soil from being used against other states. The Americans have now backed out and are unilaterally adding new subjects. The ice was finally broken after hectic behind-the-scene diplomatic efforts, with Islamabad reportedly playing a major role in persuading the Taliban to return to the table.
Initially, the meeting between the Taliban and US officials was to take place in Islamabad, but the media report leaking the news led to the venue being shifted to Doha. The talks that continued for six days finally produced remarkable results it would seem, with both sides apparently showing flexibility.
A change in the Taliban negotiating team may have also contributed to the breakthrough. In the midst of the marathon Doha negotiations, the Taliban appointed Mullah Baradar Akhund, a deputy of Mullah Omar and co-founder of the Islamist militia as the chief negotiator. Mullah Baradar who had been held by Pakistani authorities for more than a decade was released only months ago; he remains one of the most powerful and respected insurgent leaders, despite having been in custody for so long. He has also been elevated to second position in the Taliban hierarchy.
His appointment manifested the seriousness the Taliban assign to the peace negotiations. Another factor behind Mullah Baradar’s elevation is believed to be the respect he commands with and his influence over Taliban field commanders whose support would be critical to any peace agreement. His heading the team has certainly given greater authority to the Taliban negotiators.
Now it all depends on the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire and sitting across the table with the Kabul government. The persistent Taliban refusal to negotiate with representatives from Ashraf Ghani’s government has so far remained a major stumbling block in taking the peace process forward. But there appears to be a strong possibility of the insurgents agreeing to an intra-Afghan dialogue after a framework deal. A ceasefire could follow the talks. But there is still a long way to go before a comprehensive agreement among all stakeholders can be reached.
Exiting Afghanistan, however, remains the biggest foreign policy challenge for Washington. Although it has been an unwinnable war, America’s departure may not be that easy. Complete withdrawal may have its own complications. The 17-year-long war has left the country more divided. With their battlefield victories and expanding territorial control, the insurgents have certainly gained the upper hand as the Afghan endgame comes closer.
The recent large-scale attacks, launched by the Taliban, targeting Afghan military personnel and installations have given the insurgents a further boost. There is no indication of them holding back their guns until the Americans agree to a time frame for complete troop withdrawal. In fact, there could be an escalation in the Taliban’s military offensive in spring. It will be a fight-fight and talk-talk situation.
America’s desperation to pull out is itself seen as a victory for the Taliban who have gained greater international recognition over the years. That has also fuelled apprehension among other Afghan groups inside and outside the government. A major challenge for Khalilzad would be to take all those groups on board.
President Ashraf Ghani’s speech in Davos is indicative of the gap that exists between America’s exit plan and the Kabul government’s concerns. There is increasing apprehension that the withdrawal of the American forces could further empower the Taliban and plunge Afghanistan into another round of civil war. These concerns are valid and any peace deal with the Taliban must address those fears.
Then there is also a need for a regional agreement guaranteeing non-interference in Afghanistan. The involvement of regional countries has fuelled civil wars in Afghanistan. Though there has been a significant breakthrough, it is not going to be a smooth path to peace in Afghanistan.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2019