As the United States Special Envoy for Reconciliation in Afghanistan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad prepared for a closed hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on talks with the Taliban on Wednesday, the prognosis for the peace process was not very positive, even though both sides remain committed to reconvening in the future.
When the sixth and latest round of the talks that have been taking place in Doha concluded, a fortnight ago, Khalilzad signed off with a note of disappointment. He observed that the “current pace of talks isn’t sufficient”. That despair is natural, given the level of violence that has continued in Afghanistan despite the fact that the first anniversary of the current US-Taliban engagement is approaching – marking the point when the Trump administration decided to begin talks with the insurgent group and opened initial contacts, although the Khalilzad-led process formally kicked off in October. But, a clearer picture of the frustration about the lack of progress becomes clear when one takes into account what others are saying.
A significant statement was issued by Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) after Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa visited Dawatoi (North Waziristan) on the 1t8th of May, 2019. Gen Bajwa was quoted to have said: “while Pakistan continues to play its positive role towards success of Afghan reconciliation process and peace in the region, we also stay ready for any unforeseen eventuality.” It clearly implied that Pakistan was preparing for a situation where the current process may not succeed, leading to intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan. Countries always prepare for such contingencies, but such explicit announcements are rarely made. It reflects the assessment of the situation in Pakistan.
The Taliban have remained staunchly opposed to any participation of the Afghan government representatives throughout the six rounds held so far
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, according to Russian newswire TASS, told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Sochi last week that “settlement in Afghanistan is a rather complicated issue” and that “the positions of the Taliban are getting stronger”.
At the same time, one cannot miss the Twitter banter between the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Spokesman Col Dave Butler and Taliban spokesman Zabhiullah Mujahid. Both blamed each other for continuing violence in Afghanistan. Col Butler said “You (Taliban) have the opportunity to reduce violence but you choose not to. The Taliban is choosing to ignore the will of the people and bring harm to this country.” In another tweet, he said “You are not even in this country but sending Afghan sons to die while you attack the pride of the people – the Afghan Security Forces. You claim to fight us but only attack Afghans.”
Mujahid, meanwhile, held on to the lone argument that it is the US that is occupying Afghanistan and not the Taliban.
Then on top of it this week arrived the “Lead Inspector General quarterly report to the U.S. Congress on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS)”, the 16th in the series, which unequivocally warned that the Doha process between the Taliban and the US could fall apart anytime because of Taliban’s persistent refusal to talk to the Afghan government. “While there has been ‘progress’ in talks with the Taliban, the process could stall at any time, particularly if the Taliban continues to refuse to engage with the Afghan government,” the report noted.
The US and Taliban had in their fifth round of talks in March reached an “agreement in draft” on a framework for peace in Afghanistan, under which the insurgent group had agreed to extend assurances that it would deny safe haven to terrorist groups in Afghanistan. For its part, the United States had agreed in principle to withdraw armed forces from the country. Details were not worked out on that occasion – including the definition of who is a terrorist, what constitutes terrorism and when foreign forces will withdraw. Negotiating these details and the two other elements of the deal, which include subsequent actions of initiation of intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire are proving problematic and as Khalilzad put it “The devil is always in the details”.
The Taliban have remained staunchly opposed to any participation of the Afghan government representatives throughout the six rounds held so far. They last month also canceled a meeting with an Afghan delegation of notables because of reservations over its composition. The group suspected that people associated with government may be part of the 250-member delegation that was to visit them in Doha. The Taliban have, however, twice engaged with political opponents of the Ghani government in Moscow and reportedly a third meeting is being planned as well.
Both the United States and Afghanistan are, meanwhile, taking Taliban participation in Doha talks as a success of the Trump administration’s “fight and talk” strategy, which, it is claimed, has put pressure on the Taliban on the battlefield itself. The US government has, however, stopping putting out the twofold matrix that could have measured the success and substantiated the claims – the territory controlled by Afghan government and progress towards institutional reforms.
The Afghan President’s special envoy on peace and the Secretary to the High Peace Council Umer Daudzai believes that Taliban’s military gains have been halted. “They have not made any gains on the battlefield. Therefore, their position should be weakened. If you look at the US statement after the sixth round of talks, he said that the devil is in the details. That means when they went into details, they disagreed. That would not have been the case if the US had wanted to give more concessions, because the Taliban had made advances,” he interpreted the latest situation in a media interview.
To cut it short, the situational analysis for progress towards peace is not very promising. It becomes further complicated when one reads the latest analysis by the American experts, which claims that Al-Qaeda retains a strong presence in Afghanistan and it is happening with the approval of Taliban.
Back to square one?
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com