Since January end, there have been multiple rounds of talks between the US and Taliban led respectively by Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Baradar. Though the Taliban has kept silence on the nature of the negotiations so far, and its success (or the lack of it), there have been a few tweets by Khalilzad hinting progress.
What is being discussed between the two actors? Why is the Afghan government kept out of the process and how is Kabul looking at it? Amidst the talks, where to place the continuing violence perpetrated by the Taliban fighters against the Afghan soldiers since January? Why would the Taliban engage in talks and also in violence, and why would the US accept it?
US-Taliban Talks since January 2019: A Brief Note
What has been achieved between the US and the Taliban until now? The representative of the US and Taliban have held several rounds of discussions in Doha since January 2019. So far, there has been no significant statement by both the parties together. Clearly, it means, there is no considerable meeting point between the two, so far. On the positive side, the fact that the talks have not entirely broken down despite the lack of meeting point should be considered as something closer to success.
According to reports in the public and private conversations, the Taliban has agreed to one of the primary conditions of the US – that the former would not allow the Afghan soil to be used by outsiders to launch an attack against the US. However, what is not clear is, whether the Taliban has agreed not to allow outsiders to target the US in terms of the latter’s territory or its interests.
The first is in a geographic and military context – that the Taliban would not target the US, its people and its forces. The second is political, where the Taliban would not target the American interests in the US or elsewhere, including inside Afghanistan. A stable Afghanistan, American troops or a residue inside, and a political and reconciliation process in Kabul – all should be ideally a part of broader American interests in Afghanistan.
The above point – one is not sure where the talks are positioned. How much the US would insist and how much the Taliban is willing to accede would determine not just the outcome of the negotiations between the in Doha, but the future of Afghanistan and the stability of the entire region.
From the Taliban’s side, the primary point has been the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops and forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban would not want any external presence or residue, even in the form of special forces or contractors. This is something that the US is hesitant about; even many within Afghanistan are averse to the idea of complete withdrawal of the US forces.
While most within Afghanistan (outside the Taliban) would be happy to see the American troops exiting Afghanistan, a section would prefer a kind of residue force to ensure that the post-withdrawal phase does not create a total vacuum for the Taliban to overthrow the political process.
Besides the nature of the withdrawal (complete or otherwise), the timetable also seems to be an issue. According to reports, the US is keen on a five years time table, with most of its fighting troops leaving immediately, but the rest in a sequential manner. The Taliban would prefer an immediate withdrawal.
The above has been a sticking point for the Taliban.
Third, given the continuing attacks by the Taliban since January 2019, it is clear that the ceasefire has not been a part of the US-Taliban talks. Perhaps, the US would have preferred to establish a ceasefire before entering into the Taliban. However, the fact that there are regular attacks, that too high profile ones, killing Afghan soldiers in high numbers indicate that the Taliban has rejected any idea of a ceasefire. More importantly, it also means that the US has buckled down, and willing to talk to the Taliban, despite the latter’s refusal for ceasing violence.
For the Taliban, withdrawal of the American forces would lead to a ceasefire, and not the negotiations.
Doha: Kabul is unhappy. But, who cares?
As could be observed from the recent outburst of Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, the Afghan government in Kabul is not comfortable on the direct talks between the US and the Taliban.
Given a chance, the government would be unwilling to engage with the Taliban in a dialogue. True, there was an Afghan Peace Council; but its progress in negotiating with the Taliban has been limited. Despite the rhetoric, the idea of Afghan government initiating a serious dialogue remained an unfulfilled one and fully attempted. Though a section of the Afghan nation would have wanted an internal dialogue with the Taliban, one is not convinced that the government seriously wanted to have one and fully committed to it.
Besides, even if the government would have seriously wanted to dialogue with the Taliban, neither the Quetta Shura nor the Haqqani network was keen on responding to that offer. Why would they?
Though the Afghan government in Kabul would not have been keen on a dialogue with the Taliban, it would have been willing is to be a part of the negotiations between the US and the Taliban. For Kabul, a US-Taliban dialogue without government representatives should have been unacceptable.
A section outside the government within Afghanistan is also apprehensive about US-Taliban dialogue without the government and other Afghan representatives outside the Taliban. For example, the women groups and other moderates have voiced their opinion against the Doha dialogue with the Taliban.
However, the US had other plans. Especially under Trump, the US objectives in Afghanistan have narrowed further. A face-saving exit, than Afghan stability, has become the primary concern for the White House. But then it would mean a collapse in Kabul – immediate or otherwise. So the Trump administration would want to leave Afghanistan with some kind of an agreement with the Taliban.
Is the US unaware of the criticisms from Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan in terms of talking to the Taliban? Does Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spent so much time in Afghanistan understand the apprehensions against the Taliban? They do. Perhaps, they don’t care. One can always blame it on the larger American picture in Afghanistan, and rest of the region.
However, why would the US not include the Afghan government while talking to the Taliban? The answer is simple; the Afghan Taliban does not want the inclusion of the government. Perhaps, the Taliban wants to be the “sole spokesman”.
Keeping an elected government away while talking to the Taliban should raise the following three questions, that the US should have taken into account.
First, if the Taliban is not willing to even include the Afghan government in the dialogue process, what is the guarantee that it would be willing to share power with the latter, once the American troops leave Afghanistan? There is a general perception that the US-Taliban dialogue is leading towards some sort of a power-sharing agreement in Kabul.
Second, how to expect that Kabul would be willing to agree to a decision that was made between the US and Taliban? Moreover, why should it, when it was deliberately kept out of the dialogue? Perhaps, Trump and Zalmay believe that they can impose their solution on Kabul. And they may very well. It would be wrong.
Third, the negotiations would lead towards the US having a face-saving exit, but it would not lead to Afghan stability. Worse, it would collapse all that has been achieved in Afghanistan so far. Besides the Afghans, soldiers and humanitarian aid workers from the rest of the world have made supreme sacrifices in Afghanistan. They were fighting for a cause; even today, many still are. Trump and Zalmay should think about what has gone into building Afghanistan since 2001.
A country like Afghanistan, after being a part of the regional and global Cold Wars since 1979, cannot be built in a decade.
Doha: What about Islamabad?
Like Kabul, Islamabad has also been kept out of Doha negotiations so far by the US. Perhaps the US is keeping Islamabad in the picture. Zalmay did visit Pakistan repeatedly on US-Taliban talks.
Is Islamabad comfortable with being left out? Pakistan would have loved very much to be directly a party to the dialogue process. Perhaps, the US has kept Pakistan away deliberately and would have bulldozed its way through. Even the Afghan Taliban, had its own reservations earlier in keeping Pakistan a party to the dialogue. One of the reasons for Pakistan keeping Mullah Baradar behind bars has been related to the latter attempting to start a process without informing Islamabad.
Alternatively, perhaps Pakistan is confident, that some of their sources are a part of Mullah Baradar’s team.
But, why is the violence continuing?
Ever since the dialogue started between the US and the Taliban in Doha in January, the violence in Afghanistan has only intensified.
What does the above mean? One, the Taliban is not interested in reducing the intensity of violence, despite engaging with the US. Two, neither Trump not Zalmay has made violence as a red line – that the US would walk away from the process if the Taliban continues with its violence.
In simple terms, the US is willing to accept the ongoing Taliban violence within Afghanistan, and still be willing to negotiate with.
This is unacceptable. Of all people, Zalmay, you should know it.