Afghan peace talks stalemated
A persistent Taliban refusal to negotiate with representatives from Ashraf Ghani’s civilian government shrouded US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s hopeful arrival in Pakistan.
Khalilzad, a seasoned US diplomat of Afghan origin was assigned the unenviable task of negotiating with the Taliban as the Trump administration has accelerated its efforts to find a political solution to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan. Since his appointment last year, he has held two rounds of meetings with the Taliban leadership which raised some hopes of a breakthrough in the peace process.
After a promising start however, that process seems to have hit a frustrating stalemate with the Taliban threatening to pull the plug on negotiations entirely and leading to a toughening in the US tone.
“If Taliban want to talk, we can talk. If they want to fight, we can fight,” Khalilzad said at the end of his visit to Kabul last week. He also indicated that the US would increase military pressure in order to force the Taliban to return to the negotiating table.
The last meeting between US and Taliban representatives in November in Abu Dhabi, joined by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ended in a positive note. However, the Taliban’s refusal to meet with representatives of the Kabul government who were present in the city and who it frequently refers to as “puppets,” clouded the outcome and the mood.
According to some reports, Khalilzad had received guarantees from Saudi Arabia that the Taliban would enter into direct talks with the Kabul government. And it may be inferred that the Saudi government now has leverage (almost $6 billion worth) to pressurise Pakistan to sway the Taliban stance as well. But despite the pressure, the Taliban backed out from its promise at the last moment and reinforced reservations among various Afghan factions that the peace process would go nowhere without the Taliban showing some flexibility in their hard line. The Taliban turndown particularly infuriated Afghan President Ghani who had sent his National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib to the UAE.
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. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, despite intensifying talks, the Taliban have escalated their offensive targeting US and Afghan forces with near-daily and deadly attacks.
At the core of the Taliban refusal lies a long-held and well fuelled suspicion of US motivations. The Taliban are accusing the US of duplicity and of reneging on the agreement reached in previous meetings. The insurgents claim that despite agreeing to discuss the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing it from being used against other countries, the Americans have now backed out from the agenda and are unilaterally adding new subjects. The Taliban now threaten to pull out from negotiations entirely if the “agreed agenda” is deviated from.
There is still no indication on the horizon that the Taliban will be willing to engage with the Kabul government in the near future, despite growing pressure from Washington and other countries.
Moreover, the Taliban leadership has been critical of the US move to involve other countries in the peace process and though it is not immediately clear which countries they are alluding to, it reflects their suspicion that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are being used by the Americans to bring the group to the table.
There is still no indication on the horizon that the Taliban will be willing to engage with the Kabul government in the near future, despite growing pressure from Washington and other countries. Khalilzad, tasked with an impossible peace process with a group that has so far been entirely resistant to external pressures, will also find it harder to get the Afghan leadership on board over the negotiation. Empowered by recent successes on the ground and the expansion of areas under its control, it is safe to infer that the Taliban will maintain their hard line position and continue to view the pressure from Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia to hold intra-Afghan talks as self-interested.
Under pressure from Washington, Pakistan has stepped up its efforts to salvage stalled talks. Pakistani security forces last week arrested a senior Taliban commander Hafiz Mohibullah from Peshawar who is believed to be a member of the Taliban’s political commission in Pakistan, and in charge of their operations in eastern and northern Afghanistan.
Although Islamabad says it has limited influence on the insurgent group, many Taliban leaders and their family members reside in Pakistan and the US is pressing for their arrest and the expulsion of families to further mount pressure. Some media reports suggest that Pakistani authorities were making efforts to arrange a meeting between Khalilzad and Taliban representatives to break the logjam. But so far, the stalemate represents a frustrating triumph of determined insurgent forces becoming more bold-faced by the day.
• Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. Twitter: @hidhussain