The United States and Afghan Taliban will begin their seventh round of talks in Doha tomorrow (Saturday, June 29). This time, there seems to be unusual optimism that the dialogue this time will lead to initiation of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
“We’ll start the next round of talks on June 29. Based on my recent visits to Afghanistan and Qatar, I believe all sides want rapid progress,” US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Amb Zalmay Khalilzad said, while announcing the next round of talks.
There are some speculations that the upcoming round of talks will culminate in an agreement under which Taliban will publicly commit to ensuring that Afghan soil would not be used again for “international terrorism.” The Americans will, meanwhile, extend assurances on rolling back foreign military presence in Afghanistan, although details of the withdrawal will be put off for negotiation at a later date.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan this week, hinted that the eventual peace deal could be in place by start of September, weeks before Afghans vote for a new president
This sounds like half a deal, because the original understanding was that any prospective peace agreement will cover the following areas: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan negotiations leading to a political settlement, and ceasefire. Under the revised plan, apparently the parties will use the progress achieved on the first two elements of the deal to build confidence for moving forward on the remaining two.
Therefore, from the way things are placed now, it appears that Taliban will simultaneously open up negotiations with other Afghan groups, possibly representatives of the Afghan government as well, on the timeline and a political roadmap for a peace agreement. These ‘all Afghan talks’ would also underscore the importance of an intra-Afghan process for the settlement of the dispute that is now in its 18th year. One must not forget that the Taliban have, in six rounds of talks, remained strongly opposed to any negotiation with representatives of the Afghan government and an earlier attempt to jumpstart the intra-Afghan process in April failed because of this reason. The Taliban had, however, been talking to Afghan politicians who were not part of the government under Russia-sponsored Moscow Format that commenced in November 2018.
Germans are also playing a part in the new plan. They, together with the Qataris, are working for the first meeting between Afghan groups planned tentatively around July 7. This, what the Americans call “diplomacy of peace”, also involves relaxations for Taliban by the 1988 (UNSC) Sanctions Committee in terms of temporary travel ban exemption for certain individuals and a limited lifting of asset freeze for facilitating the meeting.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan this week, hinted that the eventual peace deal could be in place by start of September, weeks before Afghans vote for a new president. “That’s certainly our mission,” he said.
After his meetings with Afghan leaders in Kabul, the secretary tweeted: “Afghanistan has come far in the last 18 years. Afghans yearn for peace and we share their desire to end the conflict. Peace would offer Afghans and the wider region a different future, one which we are ready to support.”
Urging Pakistan to support the next moves in the process with “practical steps,” Pompeo separately said: “Progress has been made and we will continue to look to Pakistan practical measures, cooperation on peace talks and the implementation of any agreement.”
Last year, Pakistan had responded to a request from President Trump and facilitated the US-Taliban talks in Abu Dhabi. The process later returned to Doha, but as Pakistan’s ambassador to UN Dr Maleeha Lodhi recently said at a meeting of the UN Security Council on Afghanistan, Pakistan’s contributed to the launch of direct US-Taliban talks in Doha after the initial round in the UAE, and during the six rounds of talks, Pakistan maintained a close liaison with the process, and fully supported those peace efforts.
She said that besides calling for reduction in violence, Pakistan also took steps to achieve that. More importantly, she said, Pakistan shares the optimism about progression of the process to the next stage where Afghans will be talking to each other about a political settlement.
Pakistan has been urging all Afghan factions to benefit from the upcoming opportunity for peace. The latest call was made by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi while addressing Afghan politicians in Bhurban (Murree) at a meeting convened under newly initiated Lahore Process. “The renewed push for peace has created a new opportunity and every effort must be made to seize it. We cannot afford to miss this rare opportunity,” he told over 50 Afghan politicians participating in the event.
The entire process will get a major boost if President Ghani’s visit to Islamabad on Thursday for mending fences achieves desired results.
Moreover, one needs to keep in mind that while the intra-Afghan process, which is being touted as the ultimate solution and undoubtedly it is, there has been little analysis or study if the Afghans have started their own homework as to what they intend to negotiate during their own talks. Currently the gap between the Taliban and other Afghan politicians is too wide to be bridged in a few sessions before the September 1 deadline suggested by Pompeo.
For instance, it is unclear how would they reconcile their differences over the constitution, the political order in the country, internal security, status of women and human rights.
As Dr Maleeha said, “The path to peace will not be easy. Hurdles remain. Many challenges lie ahead before a comprehensive agreement can be reached and accepted by all the parties”.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com