Talking Peace in Doha
After a two day break, Taliban and American interlocutors got back to talking on March 2nd in Doha, fanning hopes once again for a breakthrough in negotiations.
Ostensibly, the break was taken for consultations with leaders on both sides, but it is not outside the scope of possibility that a deadlock briefly discontinued the process. Both parties however, were careful to make no mention of a stalemate and expressed their continued commitment to work on issues until an agreement was reached.
In recent days, discussions have been focused on two main points: drafting a framework for US troop withdrawal, and ensuring that Afghanistan isn’t used by militant groups to launch attacks against America and its allies post-US-exit. After six days of talks in January, US officials had appeared willing to discuss a timetable of withdrawal in return for Taliban guarantees to deny safe havens to militants threatening to attack the US and other countries.
Though the difficulties were apparent and many, hope was kindled when Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born, US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation reported significant progress after the talks in January. Even after the latest round of talks in Doha, he has been mindful of the optics of the exercise, continuously expressing his optimism about the outcome of the negotiations in a bid to keep the peace process moving and keeping public expectations squarely in the green.
Four points were under consideration in Doha, according to Khalilzad’s latest tweets. Apart from the two issues mentioned above, the rest included securing a Taliban willingness for a comprehensive cease-fire and holding direct talks with the civilian government of President Ashraf Ghani.
It is critically important for the US to ensure the Taliban accept a cease-fire before April when the group launches its yearly spring offensive, stepping up attacks against foreign and Afghan forces. If the Taliban agree not to undertake the offensive, it would be the breakthrough all parties need to serve as a confidence-building measure and cement the success of negotiations.
If the Taliban agree not to undertake its yearly spring offensive, it would be the breakthrough all parties need to serve as a confidence-building measure and cement the success of negotiations.
The Taliban have circumvented the demand for direct talks with the Afghan government, while Khalilzad has pushed the idea for a truly ‘national’ delegation with Afghan representatives from all anti-Taliban groups to hold talks with the Taliban. This could mean forming a joint negotiating team that would include Afghan government officials and opposition figures, representing all forces that came into power after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. But the Afghan government is likely to rubbish this idea entirely, claiming it has the sole authority to negotiate with the Taliban about Afghanistan’s future.
Apart from negotiations taking place between officially designated Taliban and US teams, meetings on the sidelines of the talks in Doha are also of interest. Khalilzad had a working lunch with deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to speak informally. Later, Baradar was invited to a special meeting with Khalilzad, the US and Nato military commander for Afghanistan, Gen Scott Miller, and high-ranking Qatar government officials including Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Rahman Al-Thani and National Security Adviser Mohammad Al-Masnad.
Baradar’s stature has increased tremendously since his release from Pakistani prison last October after eight years in custody. The Americans are courting him in the hopes that he will play a key role in making the peace talks a success. However, Baradar is so far staying behind the scenes while letting his deputy, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai lead the Taliban negotiators.
Khalilzad has also been trying to rally the Afghan elite from all sides of the conflict. But seeing as wealthy warlords and politicians will react in damaging ways if their interests aren’t protected in the peace process, he will have to work a great deal harder to make this, and a lot else, happen.
— Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.