Will the Taliban agree to talk to Kabul?
There was a glimmer of hope that the Afghan conflict could be peacefully brought to an end when the US started exploratory talks with the Taliban in Qatar last July, but the current impasse highlights the difficulties in resolving the longstanding issue.
After three rounds of talks in Doha and Abu Dhabi, the two sides continue to disagree on certain core points. The Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government or agree to a cease-fire has become a major stumbling block in the talks.
The US refusal to commit to a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces led by it is another hurdle. The non-participation of the Afghan government in the talks due to the Taliban’s opposition is yet another.
But the Taliban-US talks have not formally ended as neither side wants to be blamed for the failure of the most promising peace initiative to date. The two sides could meet yet again as certain stakeholders, particularly Pakistan, have stepped up efforts to resume the talks. However, further talks between the Taliban and the US will not make any headway until the group agrees to intra-Afghan dialogue by bringing the Afghan government into the process.
President Donald Trump, despite his apparent eagerness to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, may still prefer to make such a major decision in consultation with the Afghan government. A unilateral decision by the Trump administration to withdraw US-led coalition troops could not only demoralize Afghan security forces, but also enable the Taliban to claim victory. This would empower it to negotiate from a position of strength with the Afghan government.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, is on a two-week, four-nation tour — including India, China and Afghanistan — that will end on Jan. 21 after an unusually long five-day stay in Pakistan.
All eyes are now on Islamabad to facilitate a fresh round of Taliban-US talks, and to persuade the group to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government. The Taliban has rejected reports that Pakistan was hoping to arrange a meeting between Khalilzad’s delegation and Taliban representatives in Islamabad to help restart talks.
Still, further talks between the Taliban and the US are possible given that the two sides have already met and now have a measure of each other’s views and priorities. But they may not go beyond their stated positions, so the deadlock could persist. In such a scenario, the role of facilitators such as Pakistan and possibly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even China would assume importance.
All eyes are now on Islamabad to facilitate a fresh round of Taliban-US talks, and to persuade the group to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government.
The most frequently asked question is whether the Taliban would eventually agree to talk to the Afghan government. The group’s most important issue is agreement on a timetable for the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. It would be difficult for the Taliban’s negotiators to drop this demand as this could cause divisions within its ranks.
For the US, accepting the Taliban demand in the initial stage of talks, and without the Afghan government’s participation, would be difficult. The US and its allies would also want to ensure, under a likely peace agreement with the Taliban, that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for militant groups with a global agenda once their forces are pulled out.
Agreement on a cease-fire during the talks would enable all sides to the conflict to provide a conducive atmosphere for the process. But this again depends on the Taliban, which believes that keeping up the pressure on US-led forces and the Afghan government through sustained violence would better serve its purposes.
Amid the hopes generated by the earlier rounds of peace talks between the Taliban and the US, the two sides have been using tough language against each other. Khalilzad, during his recent visit to Kabul, said the US is ready to talk and fight if the Taliban so desired. The group had earlier accused the US of applying “tactical pressure” on it through other countries, and threatened to pull out of the peace talks.
However, these could be pressure tactics as the two sides have not taken any steps to implement the threats hurled at each other. There would be hope that the conflict could be ended through a political settlement as long as the major stakeholders keep talking.
• Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1