Fresh efforts to ensure peace in Afghanistan

In February this year, the Afghan Taliban and the United States signed an agreement aimed at achieving an end to almost 30 years of violent conflict in Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing but did not hesitate to remark that there were still several difficult facets that needed to be sorted out.

It may be mentioned that Afghanistan has been in a state of turmoil for more than 40 years. Following the US invasion in 2001, this conflict has also become America's longest war. 

The US direct involvement started with US-led forces overthrowing the existing Taliban government because it had provided a safe haven for the al-Qaeda leadership- which had been directly involved in the September 11 attacks in the USA. After this measure a new interim government was formed in Afghanistan and Taliban members were classed as "enemy combatants". Many of them were subsequently killed or imprisoned.

After this initial dynamics, for a brief while, it appeared as if Afghanistan was heading towards stability. However, by 2004 the Taliban had been able to re-group itself. The world watched with horror how they started launching insurgent attacks against the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the foreign troops which supported it.

The search for peace in Afghanistan through reconciliation of sorts with the Taliban, according to political strategists was initiated with some seriousness in 2010 through the formation of the Afghan High Peace Council. It was composed of a group of politicians, civil society activists and former Mujahideen. It also included several women as well as moderate Taliban figures. The basic idea behind this effort was to open up communication channels with the insurgents (scattered all over Afghanistan) to talk peace.

US wants all their forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. 

US President Donald Trump has already promised to reduce 

the number to 5,000 by November, the lowest level since the 

US invasion began in 2001

In 2013 came the next step. Through the pro-active engagement of the USA and some others from the European Union, the Qatari government was persuaded to agree to the establishment of a political office for the Taliban in Doha, the capital of that country. This enabled the Taliban to secure an address. However, a sputter of disapproval emerged from the Afghan President Karzai when he came to know that the talks between the different Parties would include direct talks between the USA and the Taliban. After this, the scenario deteriorated further when the Taliban flag was raised above the building in Doha and a plaque installed, reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". This led to serious protests from the Afghan President and the office was duly closed within days. However the media reported that the Taliban members stayed on in Qatar.

At the same time, instead of patience, fighting in Afghanistan intensified and the Taliban gradually increased their territorial control- much to the concern of the USA and the EU.

The situation continued to deteriorate.

This downward movement ended up in 2018 with US President Donald Trump- eager to pull American troops out of Afghanistan – appointing Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation. It was a strategic measure because he had been- born in Afghanistan, been US Ambassador to Afghanistan after 2001 and was known to be reasonably acceptable to most sides in Afghanistan's complex array of ethnicities.

In 2019, the US and the Taliban met for several rounds of talks in Doha. The electronic and print media both reported that the Taliban, during the talks had underlined the need for a timetable for a US troop withdrawal. The US, apparently on the other hand, demanded that the Taliban end all ties with the international terrorist group- Al-Qaeda. It was also reiterated by the US that there should not be any inter-active engagement between the Taliban and the ISIS.

Discussions continued with efforts to find least common denominators. However, instead of coming to a final agreement, in September, 2019, President Trump abruptly cancelled the ongoing talks- because of a suicide attack in Kabul that killed 12 people including a US soldier. At that point, it was seen as the last straw on the camel’s back.

Nevertheless, with the Covid pandemic ringing the bell in New York, it was decided by the USA (because 2020 was a US Presidential election year) that efforts needed to be made to restart dialogue between the USA and the Taliban. In February 2020 the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that a new deal was on the table. Diplomatic nuance was employed in this regard. The Afghan government had always stressed on the need for a ceasefire to build trust - something the Taliban persistently rejected. This time, the US negotiators tried to circumvent this hurdle by making the Taliban agree to a seven-day "reduction in violence" period. It was also clarified to the Taliban leadership that there would be a gradual withdrawal of US troops over a 10- to 20-week period and a complete withdrawal over three to five years. The Taliban, were very careful in their response – but made it clear that further movement forward between the Parties would have to take note of the fact that the Taliban not only rejected the current Afghan constitution but believed the only acceptable solution of the problem lay in  an "Islamic" government in Afghanistan.  They however, in principle, would allow women to work within an "Islamic framework" consistent with Islamic values.

As expected most analysts as well as the Afghan population were not convinced that this latest attempt to bring forth peace and a peaceful political future in Afghanistan would succeed.

The challenges ahead were formidable. This included wrangling over a prisoner exchange plan. The past US-Taliban agreement had promised "up to 5,000" Taliban prisoners being set free by the Afghan government ahead of the negotiations, in return for 1,000 members of the security forces held by the militants. The Taliban, in this regard also insisted that exactly 5,000 prisoners should be freed, and that only detainees named on a list by the group would be counted.

Well, with the US Presidential election less than two months away, the media has reported that Trump is making another attempt to finalize some sort of an agreement with the Taliban so that he can complete at least a partial withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The new round of talks has now started again in Qatar.

In the meantime, the Taliban have raised the levels of violence. Apparently, they had earlier agreed not to continue operations in major cities. Nevertheless, the Taliban fighters have been carrying out increased attacks on remote checkpoints. There has also been a spate of targeted assassination attempts on pro-government figures, many of which have gone suspiciously unclaimed.

The latest dynamics has seen Afghan President Ashraf Ghani freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners. This has partially been due to US frustration.

It is generally understood that this latest discussion between the concerned Parties will also give priority to talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, or "intra-Afghan negotiations", and a possible "peace deal". Ordinary Afghan citizens are hoping that a ceasefire can be agreed. Most citizens however think that this is unlikely as the Taliban seem determined to continue fighting until their demands are met. Some anti- terrorist analysts have hinted that the Taliban also do not want their fighters to lay down their weapons, in case it becomes difficult later on to redeploy them – if the Taliban subsequently decide to move closer to their rival militants within the Islamic State group.

This time round, the dialogue between the US and the Taliban will be more focused on removing disagreements that are thwarting US efforts to bringing US troops back home.

US wants all their forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. US President Donald Trump has already promised to reduce the number to 5,000 by November, the lowest level since the US invasion began in 2001. Most unfortunately, the Trump Administration is giving more priority to the election rather than to warnings from UN and EU officials that links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda pertaining to terrorism have yet to be broken down.

During the discussions in Doha, it is likely that the Taliban will suggest the formation of an "interim" government which they will form part of. One does not really know how the current Afghan Administration and political leadership will respond to this. Many European observers are suggesting that they might wait for the November US Presidential election to determine whether Trump will return or Biden will step into the White House. In the meantime the European Union has stressed that if any future Kabul regime does not adhere to international standards on human rights and is not inclusive in nature- investment and aid could be withheld.

The Taliban has mentioned that they value international legitimacy. However, despite protracted talks, what emerges as an opportunity for peace- might  face new challenges after the US election results.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance