Where do the Afghanistan-Taliban Peace Talks Stand?
Dr Anwesha Ghosh

Nearly two decades after the US-led military intervention in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, Washington was compelled to sign a ‘peace agreement’ with its nemesis. One of the most critical aspects of the agreement was to get the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table for the ‘intra-Afghan talks’. In a bid to end Afghanistan’s long cycle of violence, the talks began in Doha on September 12, 2020 amidst soaring expectations and publicity.

The first round of talks ended in December after the rivals agreed on procedural rules. It is expected that the second spell of talks launched on January 5, 2021 would address a multitude of critical issues including a nationwide comprehensive cease-fire, a road map for a new political order, disarming of thousands of Taliban fighters and militias loyal to regional chieftains, the rights of women and minorities. So far no agreement has been made on as to which issue would be prioritized.

Meanwhile, the alarming slow pace of the negotiations, courtesy the wrangling of the two parties over preliminary issues and the surge in terror attacks in Afghanistan heightened the apprehensions that the historic talks are headed for a breakdown. In a attempt to rescue the talks, the international community extended its support for Afghanistan through the Geneva pledging conference1, while making the fund availability contingent on the progress of the peace talks further indicated the accentuated apprehensions about the outcome of the US-led Afghan peace initiative.

The ultimate goal of the Doha Talks is the creation of a political roadmap for a future government. The question remains whether it will be a transition to the ‘Islamic Republic 2.0’ or the ‘Islamic Emirate 2.0’? This vastly dissimilar and competing vision of an Afghan end-state could be a major spoiler in the negotiations. The deliberate ambiguity about the Taliban’s political agenda has only added to the overall confusion.

Far from getting into the larger fundamental questions, the two sides are presently stuck on the meaning of basic terms like “cease-fire” and “Islamic”. There are various forms of cease-fire; the US-Taliban agreement2 did not define the term clearly and the Taliban so far has not specified what they mean by “Islamic”; Kabul’s simultaneous insistence on an “Islamic” Republic has only intensified the dispute.

More than negotiating Afghanistan’s future, Taliban’s core motivation in participating in the peace talks seem to be aimed at ensuring that US remains committed to the February 2020 agreement and remove all troops from Afghanistan by April 2021. With Western forces gone, the emboldened Taliban would be free to heighten the violence to seize political control of the country from the government. In recent months, escalating unclaimed attacks on civilians had all sides pointing the finger at each other. Washington and the Taliban blamed one another for violating the peace accord ahead of the second round of the talks.

As US makes a transition after the departure of US President Donald Trump on January 20, the Ashraf Ghani government could be interested in buying time to see the Biden administration’s policy calibration on Afghanistan. A paradigm shift in US policy is quite improbable given the fact that both Republican and Democrats are equally keen on exiting Afghanistan, but Biden earlier did express his willingness of maintaining small US troop presence in Afghanistan3. How the Taliban might react to the residual troops' presence beyond April remains to be seen. Taliban’s statement on American elections indicates anything less than a full US withdrawal will be a deal-breaker.4

There’s a growing consensus among observers5 that Afghanistan will be the Biden administrations first foreign policy crisis. At the same time, it also provides Biden administration with an opportunity that didn't exist before - intra-Afghan negotiations represent the best chance for ‘peace’ Afghanistan has had since Bonn Conference of 2001.

Meanwhile, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent visit to Kabul triggered the possibility of the establishment of an interim transitional government – a longstanding Taliban demand-which did not go down well with Ghani.6 According to reports, there is increasing recognition among the Afghan government delegation that the US diplomatic team lead by Khalilzad has conceded too much to the Taliban.7 The absence of top Kabul officials and Taliban leaders in the present round of meetings has further heightened concerns over the sense of urgency from either side to move forward in the negotiations.

At the Geneva conference, while reiterating its support for Afghanistan’s development India expressed its concerns regarding the ongoing peace negotiations and stressed on the importance of protecting the gains of the past twenty years. Although India participated at the inauguration ceremony of the Doha talks, it has shown a considerable degree of indifference towards the peace negotiations with the Taliban. The recent announcement8 that India will be heading three crucial committees including the Taliban sanctions committee and the counter-terrorism committee for the year 2022 as a member of UNSC, might allow India crucial multilateral say in the Afghan Peace Process. The visits of Abdullah Abdullah9, Field Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum10 and General Ata Mohammad Noor11 last year provided opportunities for New Delhi to strengthen its old linkages in Afghanistan, which will be beneficial irrespective of the outcome of the peace talks. Meanwhile, more than three months after Afghanistan announced its next Ambassador to India, New Delhi is yet to grant acceptance to Kabul’s nominee, an issue that both the countries hope to resolve soon.12

The pursuit of ‘peace’ for two sides locked in twenty years of conflict was never meant to easy and the tragejtary of the current peace negotiations in Doha has only reiterated that. Afghanistan has experienced turmoil since the 1970s. Over the years the country has witnessed Communist regime, Mujahedeen rule, the Taliban rule and the Islamic Republic backed by the West - reconciling the paradoxes of the past four decades will be an enormous challenge. As of now, it is unclear where these negotiations will head; what is certain though is the continuation of war, violence and suffering for common Afghans for the foreseeable future.

Endnotes
  1. “2020 Afghanistan Conference”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, 23-24 November, 2020. Available at :https://um.fi/afghanistan-conference-2020.
  2. Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and United States of America, 29th February 2020. Available at: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf
  3. “Biden says would keep small US troops presence in Afghanistan and Iraq”.Gandhara, September 11, 2020. Available at: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/biden-says-would-keep-small-u-s-troops-presence-in-afghanistan-iraq-/30833114.html
  4. “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding recent American Elections”, Voice of Jihad, November 10, 2020. Available at: http://alemarahenglish.net/?p=39175
  5. Jonathan Schroden, “Afghanistan will be the Biden Administration’s First Foreign Policy Crisis”, Lawfare, December 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.lawfareblog.com/afghanistan-will-be-biden-administrations-first-foreign-policy-crisis.
  6. “Politicians hint at establishment of interim government”. Ariana News, January 7, 2021. Available at: https://ariananews.af/politicians-hint-at-establishment-of-interim-government/?fbclid=IwAR0l27U0KoNw_Qq0VromefYjmfNVIL5Qc2_I0rVOE2rndEsOOQ6ceVpUcII
  7. “Why Afghanistan-Taliban Peace talks have not reached breakthrough”. Al Jazeera, January 12, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/12/why-have-the-afghanistan-taliban-peace-talks-stalled.
  8. “India heads crucial UNSC panels, gets foothold in Afghan peace process and Pakistan's terror record”. ZeeNews, January 8, 2021. Available at:https://zeenews.india.com/india/india-heads-crucial-unsc-panels-gets-foothold-in-afghan-peace-process-and-pakistans-terror-record-2334832.html?fbclid=IwAR2904-WoODgOzr4W97VuPErqxq1eHv6ImdpM3Cgx3mn4SSkDF2QZ1rbu-Q
  9. Abdullah Abdullah concludes visit in India. The Hindustan Times, October 11, 2020. Available at:https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/abdullah-abdullah-concludes-visit-in-india/story-26hBTGun8bi7fTFF8HLo5K.html
  10. Fist bump’: Senior Afghan leader Dostum meets EAM Jaishankar to discuss peace process. The Hindustan Times, September 25, 2020. Available at:https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/fist-bump-senior-afghan-leader-dostum-meets-eam-jaishankar-to-discuss-peace-process/story-qJjcRQQAfngm6sqec88FbK.html
  11. Geeta Mohan, “India engages the ‘resilience’ in Afghanistan”. Indian Today, October 21, 2020. Available at:https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/india-engages-the-resilience-in-afghanistan-1733837-2020-10-21
  12. “Afghanistan raises ‘delay’ in India’s Acceptance of Envoy”.The Hindu, January 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/afghanistan-raises-delay-in-indias-acceptance-of-envoy/article33570157.ece/amp/?fbclid=IwAR1gJ4qlQ8O5fsV1yz3RYNm3tcTXdXj8i0FomMHXnp_57qr2OMhf98RvQZ4

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