The much-needed talks between the United States and Afghan Taliban recently held in Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a very important development and if properly managed and the stakeholders demonstrate earnestness, may result in some decisive steps for cessation of hostilities and, ultimately, of installing a broad-based government in Afghanistan.
The talks in Abu Dhabi lasted for three days and were attended by representatives of the Afghan Taliban, the US as well as officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There are some indications soon after the parleys from the US side that talks were fruitful. However, the Afghan Taliban rejected the claims of any agreement between the two sides to have a ceasefire. At the moment nothing could be said with certainty about the success or failure of the recent talks but the fact that the talks continued for three days rather than the agreed upon schedule of one day is a key indicator of their seriousness and importance.
It was the first time that the Taliban’s both military and political leaders attended negotiations– something that has renewed hopes of a possible peace deal. Previously, the Taliban were only represented by their political office in Qatar.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who led the US side at the talks expressing his optimism said in a tweet, “Had productive meetings in the UAE with Afghan and international partners to promote intra-Afghan dialogue towards ending the conflict in #Afghanistan.” The expression of such optimism is something quite early but keeping in view the Americans desire to end the conflict in Afghanistan, which is the longest overseas military engagement in US history, such expression is understandable. However, if any positive development towards peace in Afghanistan had not really taken place during the recent talks, Khalilzad should have refrained from such statements because this would unnecessarily vitiate the atmosphere for further parleys. At the same time Khalilzad’s optimism should not the rejected out of hand.
On his part, the Taliban spokesperson, however, claimed that discussions focused on the complete withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. Since long withdrawal of US and other foreign forces has been the central demand of the Taliban before holding of any meaningful negotiations. However, the Taliban over the years have shown some flexibility in their stance by holding talks with Americans. Nevertheless, the Taliban have been claiming that the talks were held, as mentioned above, for the withdrawal of foreign and US forces from Afghanistan. However, it is difficult to believe that during the Abu Dhabi talks only withdrawal of foreign and Americans forces from Afghanistan may have been discussed as in that case the talks could have been stillborn. Indubitably, the talks must have addressed all aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan, including the alien troops withdrawal as well as the formation of a national or broad-based government or, for that matter, political power sharing in the future dispensation of Afghanistan. Therefore, it is hard to believe also the Taliban spokesperson dismissal of reports that any proposal was not under consideration regarding the setting up of interim government in Afghanistan or a six-month ceasefire. The presence of the Taliban leaders like Mullah Amir Mutaqi, Qari Yahya, Mullah Mohibullah Hamas and Mullah Abbas Akhund at the UAE talks indicates seriousness of the insurgent group towards the latest round of discussions.
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 relieve from the pressure which the insurgents have build on the battlefield. However, the Taliban cannot refuse to agree to a ceasefire because 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 UAE would stand guarantors the militia could agree to a ceasefire. This is, indeed, a tangible development and this could be built on in the next rounds of negotiations between the two sides.
Insofar as the talks regarding the future governemtnal set-up in Afghanistan is concerned the Taliban must have negotiated the point because the political future of the militia also depends upon such negotiations. Yes it is very much understandable that the Taliban would not show much flexibility on the point at once in order to appropriate for the militia as much state power as possible. 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 of the Pashtun ethnic group while other key ethnic groups including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkemen and 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 this is tantamount to prolonging the Afghan conflict unnecessarily which may reduce the importance of the Taliban overtime.
On the other hand many observers believe that the Taliban statement of not striking any deal for a ceasefire or discussing a future governmental set-up may just be meant for its foot soldiers and members who are not in favour of striking a peace deal with the US or the 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 rank and file.
In the entire episode of US-Taliban talks the importance of Pakistan in the Afghan conflict theatre again came to the fore. It may be remembered that the negotiations only took place when Pakistan facilitated them after US President Donald Trump personally requested Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan by writing a letter to him. Very rightly taking a dig at US leadership PM Khan said that the former used to dub him as Taliban Khan when he years ago would advise negotiations with the Taliban but now the same leadership asked him to facilitate talks with the Taliban. However, he said that Islamabad would do its utmost to facilitate the Washington-Taliban talks. This situation once again highlights the importance of Pakistan and particularly PM Khan in the international circles. If there is a breakthrough in Afghanistan peace with the sponsorship of Pakistan the international stature of Pakistan and PM Khan would grow tremendously. It is high time that the conflict in Afghanistan should reach its logical conclusion and all parties to it must realize the catastrophic consequences if peace remains elusive in the war-torn country.