Expectations from 8th round of Taliban -US peace talks
Every new round of peace talks in Qatar between the Taliban and the United States has raised expectations about a likely deal, but a major breakthrough couldn’t be achieved in the previous seven rounds of negotiations.
There was more optimism than the past when the 8th round of negotiations began in Doha on August 3. As both sides have publicly said that real progress has been made for reaching peace agreement, there is anticipation that the latest round of talks could be decisive.
If one were to follow the statements of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US seems to be in a hurry as it wants to conclude an agreement with the Taliban by September 1. This means the two sides have barely a month to finalize the peace deal.
President Donald Trump has spoken about his wish to ensure exit of the US forces from Afghanistan. Pompeo was also quoted as saying that President Trump wants to withdraw some of his troops from Afghanistan in 2020. As the next presidential election in the US would be held in November 2020, Trump as per his promise in the 2016 presidential election campaign could make a move to bring American soldiers home next year. The peaceful and orderly withdrawal of US forces as a result of a peace agreement with the Taliban would also be face-saving.
The peace talks began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in July 2018 when senior US State Department official Alice Well led her side in the path-breaking meeting with Taliban representatives. Later in September, veteran Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad took over after his appointment as special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation.
The talks became high-profile when Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar, the deputy Taliban leader for political affairs, was appointed head of the Qatar-based Taliban Political Commission after his release by Pakistan on Khalilzad’s request following eight years of imprisonment. His 14-member negotiating team, drawn from the Taliban Political Commission, was recently expanded with the inclusion of five more senior members and is said to be sufficiently empowered in keeping with US proposals.
The Taliban and the US have tried to put the onus of responsibility for reaching a peace deal on each other as they continue to bargain hard behind closed doors. Taliban spokesmen claim an understanding had been reached on 80 to 90 percent of the issues under discussion and a deal is within grasp if the US agrees to a reasonable timetable of troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Khalilzad, an agreement could be finalized in this round of talks if the Taliban group does its part.
The Taliban and the US have tried to put the onus of responsibility for reaching a peace deal on each other as they continue to bargain hard behind closed doors.
There has also been talk of striking an initial agreement to ensure a partial withdrawal of US forces in return for Taliban assurances on intra-Afghan dialogue and permanent ceasefire. However, the Taliban insist the US has agreed to withdraw half its forces after signing the peace agreement while the remaining would not take part in any military action and stay back to handle and dispose of heavy machinery, equipment and weapons.
It is clear the US is pushing for a conditions-based withdrawal of its forces so that the Taliban are bound to implement their part of the potential deal. The Taliban would have to guarantee that Afghanistan won’t again become a safe haven for terrorists to avoid a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. The distrust between the two sides is the reason for putting up conditions and asking for guarantees. Seeking guarantors would be a challenge given the unpredictability of the stakeholders in Afghanistan. It is also unclear if the Taliban would publicly dissociate from Al-Qaeda and other militant groups having a global agenda. However, the Taliban would certainly re-commit to fighting Daesh, as the two are already fighting for control of territory in parts of Afghanistan.
A Taliban-US peace agreement would pave the way for substantive talks between the Afghan stakeholders, including the Afghan government, its political opponents and the Taliban. Though three sessions of intra-Afghan dialogue have been held in Moscow and Doha, the absence of Afghan government officials due to the Taliban's opposition was glaring. The government was insisting it had the prerogative as an elected government to represent Afghanistan in talks with the Taliban, but the opposition parties wanted to be made part of the negotiating team. The issue could be resolved as the government recently announced a 15-member team that reportedly includes opposition members. It is likely this team would meet the Taliban in Oslo, Norway in the near future even though the Taliban continue to refer to it as a peace conference rather than negotiations and insist that Afghan government officials could attend in their personal capacity only.
The intra-Afghan dialogue could be more challenging than the Taliban-US talks as issues of permanent ceasefire, amendments in the constitution, the role of Islam in the future government set-up and the fate of the presidential election, due to be held on September 28, would need to be resolved.
– 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.