Obstacles beside Taliban-US talks for Afghan peace

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By Zahid Hussain
The Taliban has indicated that it is willing to hold another round of negotiations with the US, raising hopes of peace talks getting off the ground. In a significant development in July, a US delegation led by a senior State Department official met Taliban leaders in Qatar. The talks followed the decision by the Trump administration to start direct negotiations with the insurgent group.

The move is seen as a departure from the long-standing US position that any peace negotiations should be led by the Kabul government. The Taliban has rejected an offer of peace talks from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, instead demanding direct talks with the US. Despite the shift in the US position, structured peace negotiations are still a long way off, given the complexities of the Afghan situation. Although Ghani has approved direct talks between the US and the Taliban, a strong faction within the Afghan government is not happy with the decision.

A media report quoting a senior Taliban official said that the group is likely to appoint a new head at its Qatar office to lead the negotiations with the US. No date has yet been fixed but, according to some sources in Washington, it could happen by the end of September. The Taliban delegation is also expected to include a representative of the Haqqani network — the most dreaded insurgent faction.

Although the details of the July meeting have not been made public, some media reports suggest that the Taliban has asked for recognition of its political office in Doha and the removal of travel restrictions on its senior leaders before the next round of talks. The Taliban also claims that more than 2,000 insurgent fighters are in the US and Afghan government’s custody.

Meanwhile, Washington has called for the release of prisoners including American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, two professors at the American University in Kabul who were kidnapped in August 2016. The next round of talks is likely to focus on an exchange of prisoners and modalities for formal negotiations. The US also wants assurances that the Taliban will not disturb the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in October.

Indeed, there is a growing realization within the US administration that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won through military means, and the only way out of the crisis is a negotiated political settlement. Yet many analysts are skeptical as to whether the Trump administration has a clear road map for a comprehensive peace in the war-torn country.

While the Taliban is willing to directly engage with the US, it has not shown any flexibility on its stance of not talking to the Kabul government. Recent military successes have intensified the Taliban’s intransigence.

A three-day ceasefire during Eid Al-Fitr had raised hopes that the atmosphere could become more conducive to moving forward on peace, but the rejection of a similar move by the Taliban on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha indicated the hardening approach of the insurgents, who have expanded their area of influence in Afghanistan.

Another factor boosting the Taliban’s confidence is that it is gaining greater international recognition. Not only Russia, but some other countries are also now engaging with the Taliban at an official level. That has further weakened whatever influence Pakistan could wield over the group, making it more difficult for Islamabad to force the Taliban to join the peace process. The increasing fragmentation of political power and strengthening of warlordism have made the Afghan crisis more complicated. And the growing involvement of neighboring and regional countries has aggravated the situation.

Washington last month appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special US envoy to Afghanistan. An American national of Afghan origin, Khalilzad had earlier served as ambassador to Kabul and US permanent representative at the UN. With his Afghan background, the Trump administration considers him the best person to head the negotiations.

But there is a mixture of views about his appointment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some analysts said, with his well-known biases, Khalilzad is hardly a rational choice to work for a regional peace deal that involves Pakistan. His appointment is seen as part of the US tightening the noose around Islamabad. There is also the big question of whether he will be able to bring together the various squabbling Afghan political groups.

Meanwhile, there is renewed US pressure on Pakistan to facilitate the Afghan peace talks. The visit of US secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Islamabad earlier this month was aimed at resetting relations with Pakistan. Notwithstanding the recent tensions, there is still some convergence of interest between the two estranged allies when it comes to ending the war in Afghanistan.

(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington. Twitter: @hidhussain)