After 16 days of talks in the Qatari capital Doha, US and Taliban negotiators have wrapped up their longest round of negotiations on March 12, signalling concrete progress towards a peace deal to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Following the marathon talks, both Taliban and US representatives voiced optimism about the future of negotiations and announced that they already produced a “draft” agreement on two key issues – the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s pledge to cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terror groups. However, the sides also acknowledged that significant progress needs to be made on other thorny issues before the clenching of a peace deal that could end the conflict for good.
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“Peace requires agreement on four issues: counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire,” said the US principle negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, as he left Doha for Washington. “When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalised, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.”
Neither the finalisation of the draft agreements, nor the negotiations on a political settlement and ceasefire are expected to be straightforward – and there will undoubtedly be many other great hurdles that would need to be overcome on the path to sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
However, the progress made in Doha this week is still significant for several reasons.
The announcement of draft deals on two key issues signals both the US administration and the Taliban’s intention to continue with the negotiations until a mutually acceptable deal is reached.
Earlier, there were fears that Taliban hardliners, who claim they are about to declare total victory in the Afghan war, would sabotage the talks and force the group to pull out without signing a deal. There were also fears that the slow pace of negotiations would cause US President Donald Trump to become impatient and pull out US troops from Afghanistan without signing an agreement.
Neither of those worst-case scenarios appears likely now. “The conditions for peace have improved,” Khalilzad said on Twitter. “It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides,” the Afghan-born US diplomat added.Both sides are now clearly locked into taking the negotiations further.
Negotiations between the US and the Taliban have long been focusing on the establishment of a withdrawal timeline and counterterror measures. Now that draft agreements on both issues have reportedly been achieved, the talks will be moving on to a new – and arguably more crucial – phase focusing on inter-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire.
This phase of the negotiations will undoubtedly be the most vital for the Afghans, as they are anxious for a ceasefire that could bring an end to the decades-long bloodshed and suffering in their country.
Even on the very same day the Americans and the Taliban concluded with “success” the latest round of negotiations in Doha, 20 Afghan soldiers were killed, 10 wounded and another 20 captured by the Taliban in Badghis province in western Afghanistan. This and other similar attacks led to fears that the Taliban will announce a spring offensive in order to maintain pressure on Kabul and the Americans, increasing the urgency of a ceasefire for all parties involved in the conflict.
The start of intra-Afghan negotiations is an equally critical issue for the future of Afghanistan that is expected to be tackled in the next phase of negotiations.
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The frustration within the Afghan government over the Taliban’s refusal to hold talks with it is growing by the day. Prominent opposition leaders, such as former President Hamid Karzai, are also pressuring the government by promoting at home and abroad the idea that no possible rapprochement between the central government and the Taliban can be possible as long as President Ashraf Ghani remains in power. The Taliban added fuel to such ideas by meeting Afghan opposition politicians and some members of civil society in Moscow in February. Following the success of that meeting, there had been reports that the Taliban is planning to hold a similar meeting in Doha in April.
All this indicates that the Taliban’s strategy is to bypass Ghani, refuse to accept the legitimacy of his government and instead negotiate with a hodgepodge of Afghan political figures who are themselves divided and do not have a common strategy. This is not at all surprising, as playing divide and rule has been a consistent strategy of the group since its emergence in 1993.
This puts the Americans, who accept the Kabul government as the legitimate representative of the country and deem its presence in peace talks essential, in a difficult position. They have previously urged Ghani to put together a negotiating team to meet the Taliban. So far, the president has failed to do so. And there is not even a hint that the Taliban has any intention to meet any team put together by Ghani.
Much now rests on Khalilzad’s shoulders. While the Americans cannot force the Taliban to talk to Ghani and his government, the fact that negotiations are moving forward means there is more chance than ever before for a dialogue to start between these two major actors of the Afghan conflict. Moreover, Khalilzad and Mullah Ghani Barader, the Taliban deputy, have struck a close rapport, which will certainly help future talks.
This month’s talks in Doha may have failed to produce the long-awaited Afghan peace deal, however, they paved the way for the peace efforts to proceed. After producing draft agreements on issues like troop withdrawal and counter-terror measures, the parties to the conflict finally seem ready to discuss trickier issues such as a ceasefire and the start of an intra-Afghan dialogue on a political settlement.
The path to peace is still long and tedious, but it seems today the Afghan people have more reason to be hopeful than ever before.