How the Taliban have become leading actor in Afghan peace talks

How the Taliban have become leading actor in Afghan peace talks

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
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While the Taliban have established their domination both politically and militarily in almost half of Afghanistan, the consequent talks with the US and the way they have progressed show that they are already in a commanding position. They certainly have become the leading actor in these talks not just because they are the ones fighting the war against the US and Afghan forces, but also because they are directing the dialogue: who they would talk to as well as the venue for the negotiations. At the same time, the Taliban have also shown their fast decreasing propensity to listen to external powers that are otherwise known to have had deep influence on them.

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This is quite evident from the way how, first and foremost, the Taliban forced the US government to engage in direct talks with them by refusing to engage with Kabul. The Taliban, as it stands, repeatedly rejected Kabul’s “unconditional” offers of peace before the US paid heed to the demand for direct talks between the actual warring parties. Since then, the US has been trying to insert Kabul into the system, an effort the Taliban continue to resist for two reasons. First, this inclusion would imply granting legitimacy to the government that the Taliban call illegitimate and incapable of taking any decisions. Secondly, such a recognition would potentially amount to relegating their own political stature vis-à-vis Kabul, where many among the present ruling elite continue to oppose their return to power. There is as such a certain politics behind the Taliban’s refusal to engage Kabul.

While the talks have been postponed, a US statement made it clear that this would not be for an indefinite period of time, and that the fourth round would soon be “rescheduled”, meaning thereby that it will once again be held without Kabul. For, despite the lumpy clarification from the White House about the no-decision-taken on troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is little gainsaying that withdrawal is very much on the cards.

They continue to stick to this politics despite the pressure that the US has brought on them through Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While the Taliban initially agreed to participate in talks that were to be held in Saudi Arabia, they subsequently refused to go there because the talks were most probably going to be just about Kabul’s inclusion than about the core agenda the Taliban wanted to discuss.

Just before the Taliban refused to attend talks in Saudi Arabia, Saudi King Salman spoke with Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani on how his country could play a “prominent role”. That Saudi Arabia was coordinating with Kabul meant quite obviously that the very reason behind its inclusion in the game was to convince the Taliban of the necessity of Kabul’s inclusion. But the Taliban’s refusal came as a surprise to many, including those who had pinned their hopes on this development as a decisive turn in the Afghan end-game.

The Taliban pull-out of the talks has, however, shown that the power to decide which way the wind will blow is firmly in their hands. To be sure, the Taliban know that the US president is eager to end the war, and they will make full use of this sense of urgency in Washington.

The Taliban were able to divert these discussions from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, and then eventually called off the fourth-round of talks because of “agenda disagreement” with the US.

The disagreement, as it stands, was on including Kabul, an issue that has never appeared on the Taliban’s points of talks which mainly include a) US withdrawal, b) prisoner exchange and c) lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders.

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While the talks have been postponed, a US statement made it clear that this would not be for an indefinite period of time, and that the fourth round would soon be “rescheduled”, meaning thereby that it will once again be held without Kabul. For, despite the lumpy clarification from the White House about the no-decision-taken on troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is little gainsaying that withdrawal is very much on the cards.

Just when the question of holding the fourth round of talks was dwindling, a ‘peace plan’ prepared by an influential US-based think-tank, the RAND corporation, was widely shared with the diplomatic community and the media, which showed that a part of the peace plan under consideration did not involve a phased but full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, ending the 17-year-old war.

The Taliban pull-out of the talks has, however, shown that the power to decide which way the wind will blow is firmly in their hands. To be sure, the Taliban know that the US president is eager to end the war, and they will make full use of this sense of urgency in Washington.

The decision to postpone the talks means that the Trump administration is fast running out of time. The postponement of presidential elections in Afghanistan has also added a lot more political uncertainty amid the Taliban’s rapid political and military gains.

These developments are only making the Taliban’s position vis-à-vis the US and Kabul stronger, which means that America or its allies, be it Saudi Arabia or Qatar, are hardly in any position to pressurise the Taliban to accept certain demands.

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