The longest round of peace talks yet between the US and the Taliban ended on Tuesday, with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressing his sense of achievement on Twitter: “The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war.”
The statement — and indeed, the talks themselves — came as a marker of the gargantuan change in the US policy on the Taliban from an armed invasion almost 18 years ago to peaceful negotiations at present.
Why talks now
The war in Afghanistan, the second longest armed conflict in American military history after Vietnam, has claimed thousands of lives on all sides: Afghan civilians, US-led coalition troops, and those belonging to insurgent groups. It has claimed a staggering financial toll — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have together cost the American taxpayer almost $6 trillion since 2001.
Along the way, the US establishment slowly began to come to terms with the futility of the military option — which over time grew into an acknowledgment of the unwinnability of the war where Afghanistan was concerned. Back in 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken of the need to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” Taliban. The view in favour of holding talks has only strengthened since then.
The Taliban on their part have been grappling with the emergence of the ISIS in Afghanistan, which is in direct conflict with both the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government. The Taliban are also keen to demonstrate to the war-weary Afghan people that it seriously wants to govern them.
How talks began
In July 2018, the administration of President Donald Trump asked the State Department to explore the possibility of talks with the Taliban, signalling a major paradigm shift in American policy. In his State of the Union address last month, Trump even said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
Consequently, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to Afghanistan, was appointed the special US envoy in September 2018 to initiate the peace process. Reaching out to the Taliban, who have been operating from their diplomatic office in Doha since 2013, a framework peace deal was agreed “in principle” in January 2019. The current talks were directed towards “fleshing” out this framework.
Significance of talks
The meetings that concluded on Tuesday were important because the Taliban delegation was chaired by Mullah Baradar, a co-founder of the Islamist movement and one of its most senior leaders, who was released by Pakistan in October last year after almost a decade of incarceration.
At the close of these talks, both sides agreed to an “agreement in draft” on two of the most critical areas central to American interests: an commitment by the Taliban to not allow anti-American activities on Afghan soil, and a time-bound withdrawal of American troops.
There however remains a bone of contention. The Taliban have from the beginning been adamant they would not talk directly with the Afghan government, which they consider to be a US puppet. A change in the Taliban’s attitude could perhaps be expected now that the current negotiations are over, especially since they have already attended in the recent past round-table discussions comprising all Afghan players, including the government.
What is at stake
During their years in government from 1996 to 2001, and in many of the areas that they controlled, the Taliban enforced a highly puritanical form of Islam, banishing women from public life, restricting their access to schools, and banning music and television. After their ouster from power, Afghanistan has taken steps towards providing to its people constitutional freedoms, and creating the conditions for an independent media and an increased role for women. It is widely feared that the return of the Taliban would destroy these fledgling, hard-won achievements.
Yet, the need to stop the incessant fighting remains the top priority for all parties, and a political arrangement with the Taliban is a price that they are now willing to pay as long as an assurance can be extracted that Afghanistan will not be allowed to become a terrorist threat to the West again.
What it means for India
Though Afghanistan is a strategic investment for India, and to whose rebuilding New Delhi has made significant contributions, it does not have great leverage even now. India’s principle of not differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists in effect rules out direct negotiation with the Taliban. India’s participation in the Moscow talks last November was only in a ‘non-official capacity’.
This situation is not likely to improve now that it is clear that the Taliban will have a major say in the government of Afghanistan at least for the foreseeable future. India’s strategic presence in Afghanistan stands on a much lower footing compared to that of Pakistan, the country whose intelligence wing in many ways created the Taliban, and which continues to influence its leaders. Once the Americans withdraw fully and the Taliban take over the country in a direct or indirect capacity, India will have its task cut out.
What happens now
The next round of the US-Taliban talks is expected to begin later this month, although no official date has been announced. The Afghan government, hitherto sidelined, hopes to find a way to the bargaining table. The two sides are also expected to discuss the possibility of a complete ceasefire after the departure of US troops, definitively ending the war.