The eighth and potentially decisive round of talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban to end 18-year-long multi-wave conflict in Afghanistan could result in an agreement by September 1, which may have a salubrious impact on the region but could also have serious implications for the stability of Afghanistan as well as that of the surround states.
While these lines were being written, the eighth round of talks was going on in the Qatari capital Doha in which the US side was led by President Donald Trump’s Special Adviser on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Afghan Taliban by the organization’s co-founder, Abdul Ghani Birader. The round of talks was considered as decisive as even the recalcitrant Afghan Taliban have declared that 80 percent of the issues between the two sides have been resolved. It is important to note that recently US President Trump even said that he wanted to see an early end to the war in Afghanistan. However, it is important to note that Washington has unequivocally stated that it is not going to pull out all of its forces from Afghanistan at once. This is the main bone of contention between the two sides as the Afghan Taliban have been demanding the declaration of an early and prompt time-frame by Washington for the withdrawal of all its forces from Afghanistan. While on his recent visit to Islamabad, Zalmay Khalilzad said that the presence of US troops in Afghanistan was not without conditions and the withdrawal of the forces won’t be unconditional.
It is important to note that the two main conditions of the US for the Taliban have been to renounce and completely disown Al-Qaeda, which claimed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US mainland, killing more than 3000 people. Secondly, that the Afghan Taliban shall cease fire. The two conditions are not that stringent that the Taliban won’t accept them.
Insofar as the first demand of Washington is concerned, one thinks that the Taliban would have no problem to renounce Al-Qaeda. In fact, since the ouster of the Taliban regime by the US blitzkrieg in late 2001, there has not been a strong link between the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Most of the Al-Qaeda leadership shifted to Pakistan where most of its top commanders were arrested or killed, like the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh. Even on the death of Al-Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US Special Operations Forces (SoF) operation in Abbotabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2012, the Taliban had not expressed any strong reaction, rather any reaction at all, and only had dubbed Osama as a “mujahid.” It is also important to note that without Dr. Aiman Al Zawahiri, the present Al-Qaeda head, all the top leadership of the organization has been killed by the US, especially in drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the outfit does not have a strong command and control structure in either of the countries. In such a situation, when Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Omar and Al-Qaeda founder Osama are no longer there, Afghan Taliban’s present command could be easily made to earnestly renounce Al-Qaeda.
The condition of ceasefire by the Afghan Taliban could only be met when the US would also declare to reduce its troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Already, there has been an agreement that in the first phase Washington would reduce its troops’ level from 14,000 to 8,000 in Afghanistan as a quid pro quo for the Taliban halting hostilities, particularly terrorist attacks. So far, the Taliban may not have agreed to ceasefire for six months or any other length of time because it may give time to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and US troops to come out of the pressure which the insurgents have build on the battlefield. However, the Taliban cannot refuse to agree to a ceasefire because for any meaningful strides towards peace in Afghanistan are dependent on the Taliban readiness to stop fighting, at least temporarily. Importantly, Taliban interlocutors stated that if Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would give guarantee, the militia could agree to a ceasefire. This is indeed a tangible development and could be build on in the next rounds of negotiations between the two sides.
However, a very important aspect of the peace agreement in Afghanistan would be a breakthrough among the warring or other parties regarding the future setup in the country. The Taliban, after years of intransigence not to talk to authorities in Kabul, have finally agreed to hold talks with representatives of the Afghan government. The talks may be held in near future. In this regard, the Taliban stance seems to be quite tricky as they argue that once there is an agreement between Washington and their command in the second phase, there would be intra-Afghan dialogue.
Because, once the US has declared or would have pulled out troops from Afghanistan, it would be extremely difficult for the warning Afghan factions and the Kabul government to successfully reach an agreement about the future dispensation of Afghanistan and how to go about establishing such a dispensation. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already clarified that there would be no return to an “emirate” and Afghanistan would remain a republic. The Taliban have been desirous of making Afghanistan an emirate with a radical group like it taking the reins of the state. But Afghan President Ghani and the entire state infrastructure is too weak to hold its own in the face of a touch challenge from the Taliban and once the US troops would have withdrawn, who have had kept the Afghan government afloat, Afghan authorities would find it impossible to keep the Taliban from what they want.
The talks for the future governmental setup in Afghanistan are concerned that the Taliban must have negotiated the point because the political future of the militia also depends upon the negotiations. Yes, it is very much understandable that the Taliban would not show much flexibility on the point at once in order to gain as much state power as possible for it. The Taliban also understand that they have to share power with other stakeholders in the would-be political dispensation in the country as they cannot realistically claim to be the only stakeholder in the Afghan state structure. This is very much evident from the fact that the Taliban predominantly comprise a Pashtun ethnic group while other key ethnic groups including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkemen while Hazaras also have important stakes in the Afghan state and governmental structure. If the Taliban do not recognize the claims and share of other stakeholders, it is tantamount to prolonging the Afghan conflict unnecessarily, which may reduce the importance of the Taliban over time.
On the other hand, many observers believe that the Taliban statement of not striking any deal for a ceasefire or discussing the future governmental setup may just be meant for its foot soldiers and members, who are not in favour of striking a peace deal with the US or Afghan government. There may be some element of truth in this line of argument because it is quite difficult for the top commanders of the Taliban to strike a deal with Kabul or Washington, with so much vitriolic anti-US and anti-Kabul sentiments present within the files.
Against the backdrop, if a peace deal is reached by Washington and the Taliban in the coming days, it would be a historic moment and may result in an end to an old conflict and crisis in Afghanistan.