Progress in Taliban-US peace talks but differences remain
After making progress in their six-day peace talks, held in the third week of January in Doha, Qatar this year, the Taliban and US negotiators appear to be keen on maintaining the momentum as they have agreed to meet once again on February 25 in a bid to reach a deal and peacefully end the Afghan conflict.
Even though a joint statement couldn’t be issued after the conclusion of the talks — apparently due to different interpretations about the points that were agreed upon --- both sides appeared satisfied with the outcome and sounded optimistic that further progress could be made.
The Taliban reinforced their commitment to the peace process by appointing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — deputy to the Taliban’s supreme leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada — as the head of its Political Commission, in place of Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, to lead the talks with the US.
This should serve as a reassurance for the US and the Afghan governments as there had been complaints that the Qatar-based Political Commission of the Taliban wasn’t sufficiently empowered to take any decisions.
US’ special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wasted no time in flying to Kabul after the Doha meetings to update the Afghan government and seek its inputs for the peace process. Khalilzad has been regularly consulting and updating President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah who are both part of the national unity government that has been kept out of the talks due to the Taliban’s opposition.
Until the US can persuade the Taliban, with help from Pakistan and other countries, to agree to a dialogue with the Afghan government, Khalilzad would have to continue with his regular visits to Kabul before and after every round of talks to keep Ghani and Abdullah abreast of the situation.
In fact, one of the stumbling blocks in achieving a breakthrough in the ongoing negotiations is the Taliban’s refusal to recognize the Afghan government and hold direct talks with it until a timetable for the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan is finalized.
Despite the optimism created by the latest round of talks in Doha, differences continue to exist between the two sides and could hold back further progress. The US is demanding that the Taliban commit to a cease-fire and hold talks with the Afghan government.
The Taliban consider the Afghan government a ‘puppet’ of the US and powerless to take major decisions such as the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Interestingly enough, the Taliban don’t object to holding meetings with Afghan politicians, tribal elders, and religious figures.
Khalilzad, a 67-year-old Afghan-born American diplomat, has said that the two sides have agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal under which the US forces would withdraw from the country in return for a commitment from the Taliban to disallow terrorist groups from using Afghan territory for attacks against the US and other countries.
He added that the US was satisfied with the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a platform for international terrorist groups and individuals, adding that details would be worked out for an agreement soon.
This would require the Taliban to dissociate itself from global terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, which was been weakened over the years, particularly after the assassination of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in the May 2011 raid by US special forces on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The US and other countries, more so Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan, are aware of the fact that the Taliban fought and defeated Daesh in it’s Khorasan chapter — operating in Afghanistan — as they consider it as a major threat to their dominance in the country. The regional countries would also be banking on the Taliban to tackle the Afghanistan-based, anti-state groups made up of their citizens such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIP), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaatul Ahrar, to name a few.
Despite the optimism created by the latest round of talks in Doha, differences continue to exist between the two sides and could hold back further progress. The US is demanding that the Taliban commit to a cease-fire and hold talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban, however, reportedly want to enforce the cease-fire once the foreign forces start withdrawing from Afghanistan. The US, on the other hand, is seeking a cease-fire as soon as the peace agreement is signed and has withdrawn its forces from the country. The rise in Taliban attacks after entering into dialogue with the US last July is seen as an attempt to strengthen its position in the negotiations process.
The Taliban’s refusal to hold direct talks with the Afghan government has caused anger in Kabul and prompted President Ghani to talk tough. While downplaying what impact the foreign troops’ withdrawal would have on Afghan forces, he pointed out that most of the fighting since 2014 is being done by his soldiers as 45,000 lost their lives defending the country.
He wasn’t happy about being kept out of the talks “with a small group behind closed doors” and advised prudence instead of making a quick peace deal with the Taliban to avoid repeating past mistakes. It is obvious Ghani’s tough stance and the Taliban’s inflexibility would make the talks between the two parties even more challenging than the Taliban-US negotiations.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst of Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1