The United States and Taliban recently made ‘reasonable progress’ in Islamabad towards resuscitating their peace talks. These talks had been declared “dead” by President Donald Trump a few weeks ago.
US Special Envoy for Reconciliation Amb Zalmay Kahlilzad was in Islamabad last week on an unannounced trip for consultations with Pakistani officials. It was, however, no coincidence that a delegation from Taliban’s Political Office in Doha led by Mullah Baradar was also in the federal capital at the same time. The Taliban delegation’s visit was significant for a number of reasons – it was the first visit by representatives of Taliban political office since it was established in 2013 although they have been travelling all over the world to engage with countries having stakes in Afghanistan. Moreover, the visit was officially announced by the Foreign Office and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly welcomed them at the doorsteps of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a warm embrace during their visit there.
There was lot of excitement about the meetings in Islamabad because the two sides (US and Taliban) were close to a deal when on September 7 President Trump tweeted cancellation of his meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban representatives and end of all contacts with the Taliban because of the death of an American soldier in an attack in Kabul. It has now been revealed that the two sides had agreed to sign the deal on September 13 and initiation of intra-Afghan process by September 23 when the process was ended. There was also an understanding about a ceasefire to immediately follow the intra-Afghan dialogue. That progress was painstakingly made in nine rounds of talks between the two sides.
Pakistan, which has the highest stakes in peace in Afghanistan, played the lead role in resumption of the US-Taliban interaction. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his meeting with President Trump on the side lines of UNGA Summit, offered to facilitate renewal of contacts with Taliban. The visit by Amb Khalilzad as a result of Khan’s offer represented Washington’s interest in re-engagement.
The Taliban delegation, meanwhile, during their visit to Foreign Office clearly expressed their readiness to resume the process and reaffirmed their commitment to the terms of the draft deal that had earlier been agreed.
On paper, revival of US-Taliban process looked a mere formality, but getting things back in place was little more complicated. The first step was achieved when Amb Khalilzad and Taliban met each other, for the first time face to face since their talks broke off in September although they had kept their channels of communication open during weeks long interregnum in their negotiations. Officials, however, cautioned that the meeting, and according to another source ‘meetings’, between the two sides, should not be seen as formal resumption of talks.
The key issues at the table now are finding an appropriate face-saving for President Trump to agree to reinitiating talks and giving Taliban an assurance that US leadership would implement the agreement and would not just walk away through a tweet like before. The Americans, therefore, are demanding an announcement of ceasefire by the Taliban, so that Mr Trump could tell his people that he returned to talks only after extracting an assurance that there would be a clear reduction in violence. Moreover, Amb Khalilzad had demanded that Taliban agree to participation of Afghan government in the process – something Taliban had all along insisted that it would happen after their agreement with US on troops withdrawal.
Taliban, meanwhile, are demanding that the originally negotiated draft agreement should remain intact despite the breakdown in the talks and that there should be guarantees from Russia and China that the other side would abide by the pledges.
Although, it is unclear how much progress has so far been made on the demands by the two sides, because the meetings in Islamabad ended quietly when Amb Khalilzad left last Friday without any side making a formal statement. Some of the Taliban delegates also left afterwards. Taliban, according to a source, were satisfied with the progress made during the meetings in Islamabad. It is being said that both sides have returned to their principals for reporting their discussions and seeking further instructions.
As a confidence building measure, US and Taliban have, meanwhile, made significant progress on prisoner swap. Days after Taliban meeting with Amb Khalilzad, 11 Taliban prisoners were released from high security Bagram jail in return for release of three Indian engineers taken captive by the insurgents. Progress has reportedly also been made in talks on release of two university teachers – Kevin King (US) and Timothy Weeks (Australia).
The ice-breaking meetings in Islamabad and the progress on prisoner swap may all provide a good setting for the peace talks to go ahead, but a lot would depend on the outcome of presidential elections in Afghanistan, where vote counting is going on. Early indications are that Afghanistan may be drifting towards political uncertainty in coming weeks and months. The results are expected by October 19. Many analysts are already predicting a run-off between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. The winner needs to bag at least 51 percent of vote cast to avoid a run-off between the two top candidates.
“We do not have time for a months-long power struggle this time,” President Ghani has warned in an interview with Germany’s Spiegel news agency. Although, Taliban have so far refused to engage with the Afghan government, but there is no denying that political turmoil in Afghanistan would further complicate the path to peace because ultimately the intra-Afghan process would drive the peace agenda.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com