Mediators seek Taliban cease-fire before relaunching peace talks
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, recently embarked on his latest journey to hold consultations with important stakeholders concerning the Afghan peace process.
Hopes for Afghan peace rise whenever Khalilzad undertakes such trips to Afghanistan and Qatar, where the Taliban Political Commission, which is authorized by the armed group’s leadership to hold peace negotiations, is based. The envoy’s travels to Brussels to consult with the US’ NATO partners are also necessary, as the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan — including troops from other member countries of the Western military alliance — will have to be closely coordinated if a deal with the Taliban is struck. Visits to Moscow and Beijing are also widely considered to be important for building a consensus on promoting the cause of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad’s recent stopovers on a hectic tour of European capitals, including Brussels, Paris, and Moscow, as well as Kabul and Islamabad, produced a joint US-Europe statement, which resolved that sustainable peace in Afghanistan could only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement. The meeting in Moscow that brought together a US delegation led by Khalilzad and Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials also backed the idea that an Afghan peace process was only possible through a politically inclusive dialogue among all Afghan stakeholders, including the government and the Taliban.
Khalilzad’s stopovers in Kabul and Islamabad were longer and his discussions more focused due to the high stakes and roles of the Afghan and Pakistan governments in the peace process. Though the announcement of the results of the controversial Sept. 28 Afghan presidential election has been further delayed until Nov. 14, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah continue to call the shots in Kabul and both need to be consulted, despite them being rivals in the polls.
The Taliban have been told that it is reduced violence that will create the right conditions for a revival of Taliban-US peace talks
Khalilzad met with them both and many other Afghans who hold political clout to fine-tune the next stage of the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue. It is likely that Khalilzad will have discussed Ghani’s new seven-point peace plan with him, even though the Taliban still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the civilian government. The Americans and all other players in the peace talks know that a peace plan will become more relevant if it is mooted by a newly elected president, whether Ghani or Abdullah, after securing a fresh mandate in the election.
During his visit to Pakistan, Khalilzad heard Prime Minister Imran Khan and the powerful military high command offering their all-out support for the Afghan peace process. Khan was quoted as telling Khalilzad that a reduction in violence by all sides was necessary to create an environment conducive to talks. This is the proposal on which Pakistan is cooperating with the US, while other stakeholders and the Taliban have been told that it is reduced violence that will create the right conditions for a revival of Taliban-US peace talks.
Since the Taliban have repeatedly refused to agree to a permanent cease-fire in the past, the group is now being persuaded by countries like Pakistan, which hold some influence over its leadership, to accept a cease-fire for a limited period, at least during the intra-Afghan dialogue. The incentive for the Taliban, in case of violence, is reduced and a limited cease-fire is agreed upon, would be the revival of peace talks with the US and the conclusion of a deal leading to the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. This has consistently been the foremost Taliban demand and securing the withdrawal of what they view as “occupation forces” would enable the group to achieve a long-cherished objective.
In the middle of renewed diplomatic activity to break the stalemate in the Afghan peace process, China last month came up with an offer to host the next round of the intra-Afghan dialogue. The proposed meeting, which was set for two days last week, signaled deeper Chinese involvement in the multi-pronged efforts to promote peace in neighboring Afghanistan. Since Beijing is on friendly terms with the Afghan government and has a working relationship with the Taliban, it seemed to have decided to use the goodwill it enjoys with the Afghans to play a bigger role in the peace process. Though Russia and Qatar had already hosted different versions of the intra-Afghan dialogue, the Chinese initiative was meant to be more comprehensive, as it aimed at formally bringing Afghan government officials face-to-face with Taliban representatives in Beijing. But this was never going to be easy, as the Taliban have consistently refused meetings with Afghan officials, believing them to be representatives of a government that it does not recognize. Therefore, the Beijing meeting, which had been welcomed by the US and other countries, was postponed.
This leaves China with more time — and does the same for the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — to seek a serious reduction in violence as part of confidence-building measures. This is required if the Taliban-US peace talks are to be revived and a productive intra-Afghan dialogue achieved.
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. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1