Seizing the opportunity

As the US-Taliban peace talks continue, Rahimullah Yusufzai looks at the challenges ahead and how the process can be facilitated

It was unthinkable even until early 2018 that the United States of America and the Taliban would begin peace talks in the summer that year in a bid to bring a peaceful end to the long drawn out Afghan conflict.

Yet the unthinkable has happened. The dialogue that began in July 2018 has now continued for more than six months and, if media reports are to be believed, it could even lead to a ceasefire agreement and the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan. The latest round of talks in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in the third week of January were extended from the originally scheduled two days to five as both sides were keen to reach an understanding on some of the core points that came under discussion.

Both the US and the Taliban changed the head of their negotiating teams as the unprecedented face-to-face talks got underway. Senior US State Department official Alice Wells led her team in the first meeting with Taliban negotiators in Doha, which was publicly acknowledged. Zalmay Khalilzad, the 67-year old Afghan-born US diplomat replaced her when he was appointed Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation in September 2018. He held his first meeting with Taliban representatives in Doha in October. Since then he has led the 11-member US team, which includes officials from the US State Department, Pentagon and security services, and has undertaken visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia and other regional countries to hold consultations and seek support for the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has been a frequent destination for Khalilzad as its role is seen as critical in persuading the Taliban to join the peace process. Although Pakistan maintains that its influence on the Taliban has declined, it has continued to claim that it facilitated the peace talks between the Taliban and the US.

The Taliban also changed their lead negotiator mid-stream when the talks entered a reportedly decisive stage. Mulla Abdul Ghani Biradar, a former deputy head of the Taliban movement, replaced Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai as the head of Qatar-based Taliban Political Commission that is representing the Taliban in the peace talks. Stanekzai was demoted to the position of deputy head of the Commission, though he remained part of the Taliban negotiating team due to his experience.

Biradar was also made the deputy of Taliban supreme leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzad for political affairs. Although he is one of the three deputy leaders of the group – the other two being the late Taliban founder Mulla Mohammad Omar’s son Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob and Haqqani network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani – Biradar’s seniority and his previous dominant position among the Taliban has effectively made him the de facto deputy chief of the movement. In fact, Biradar would most probably have become the Taliban’s supreme leader in August 2015, when Mulla Omar’s death was belatedly confirmed by the group after being covered up for more than two years. But he couldn’t be chosen as Omar’s successor because he was then in Pakistan’s custody after being arrested in Karachi in February 2010. Pakistan finally released him in October 2018, apparently on an agreement with the US, so that he could play a role in the peace talks.

However, this change in both the US and Taliban lead negotiators did not mean either changed their respective positions in the talks. Each side has stuck to its stance, which in the case of the US includes demands that the Taliban agree to a ceasefire, provide a commitment not to allow the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups to undertake attacks against America or any other country, and also hold talks with the Afghan government. For the Taliban, the most important issue is a complete withdrawal of the remaining 17,000 foreign forces from Afghanistan. Other Taliban demands include the enforcement of Shariah law in Afghanistan by amending the Afghan constitution, the release of Taliban prisoners and the removal of Taliban members’ names from the UN Security Council’s ‘black-list’, which sanctions them from travelling to other countries and freezes their bank accounts. There is obviously a wide gulf between the two sides and bridging it is a huge challenge.

LEAD NEGOTIATOR: The Taliban’s Mulla Abdul Ghani Biradar
LEAD NEGOTIATOR: The Taliban’s Mulla Abdul Ghani Biradar

Still, getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to talk and reconcile with each other is going to be an even bigger challenge. Until now the Taliban have refused to recognise the Afghan government, terming it a powerless puppet of the US. This is the reason the group insisted on talking directly with the US about their primary demand:the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The US accepted this demand but the decision didnot go down well in Kabul, as President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah’s national unity government have been kept out of the talks.

For its part, the Afghan government doesnot seem ready to offer many concessions to the Taliban. It argues that most of the fighting against the Taliban and other insurgents has been carried out by the Afghan security forces since December 2014, when the bulk of NATO forces completed their drawdown from Afghanistan. At the recent Davos summit, President Ghani pointed out that Afghan forces have suffered 45,000 deaths in the conflict since 2014, when he came to power, compared to only 72 foreign soldiers. This showed, he argued, who is doing the real fighting in Afghanistan nowadays.

The Afghan government is also going ahead with organising the July 20 presidential election, despite security concerns, to show its confidence. And although there is talk of the formation of an interim government should the peace talks make headway, the Afghan administration is bitterly opposed to this.

While it has not openly acknowledged it, the Afghan government seems aware that a complete withdrawal of US-led foreign forces could embolden the Taliban and cause demoralisation in its own ranks. An end to, or drop in, the $5.2 billion annual assistance provided by the US and its allies for the Afghan security forces could be a big blow. US airpower fulfils a critical need in keeping Taliban fighters at bay in vulnerable cities and towns, and it isn’t clear if the jet-fighters, gunship helicopters and drones would remain in service in Afghanistan. Without NATO air cover, and in view of the fact that the Afghan air force is still small, the Taliban would gain an advantage if there is no ceasefire.

All these and other issues must be at the back of the minds of the Americans and their Afghan partners as the peace talks proceed.

In order to return war-ravaged Afghanistan to peace and stability after nearly four decades of war, the Afghans – be they Taliban or members of the pro-West Afghan government – must talk to each other and learn to co-exist. Outsiders can help by facilitating the peace process and refraining from interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs by supporting their proxies. Never before has such a serious effort been made to find a negotiated settlement to end the Afghan conflict and the opportunity must not be missed.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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