Afghanistan has known so many false starts that when US Special Envoy to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad declared Sunday that a six-day round of direct talks between the US and Taliban in Doha has led to a “framework” for a peace agreement, there was more caution than optimism all around.
As reported by The New York Times based on an interview with Khalilzad and unnamed US officials, the broad contours of the framework are: a commitment by the Taliban not to allow terrorists (read IS, an addition to the existing mix) to use Afghan territory to mount attacks on the US and its allies; an agreement by the US to pull out troops, but contingent on what remains a stumbling block — a Taliban agreement to talk with the Afghan government, and to a permanent ceasefire.
Khalilzad himself struck a note of caution by underlining that the “framework” had to be fleshed out in the coming rounds.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who addressed the nation Monday after being briefed by Khalilzad, cautioned against rushing into a deal. The Afghan government has so far been kept out of the US-Taliban talks.“We want peace quickly, we want it soon, but we want it with prudence. Prudence is important so we do not repeat past mistakes,” Ghani said. He asked the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government directly.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said that without the withdrawal of international troops, there could be no progress on other issues.
The next round of talks will reportedly take place on February 25. During the Doha talks, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, an old Taliban warhorse, as their chief negotiator. Baradar did not participate in last week’s negotiations but is expected to be on board for the following rounds. He was arrested in February 2010 in Karachi in a joint Pakistan-US intelligence operation, and released by Pakistan only in October 2018. At the time of his arrest, he was said to be holding direct talks with then President Hamid Karzai. Karzai accused the US and Pakistan of scuttling the talks. Baradar’s appointment to the talks is being seen as an indication of Taliban seriousness.
The US push
For its part, the Trump Administration has smelt a rabbit in the hat. The decision to talk to the Taliban was taken during the Obama presidency when the Americans concluded there was simply no way they could win the Afghan war, and began looking for face-savers with what Hillary Clinton called the “good Taliban”. The Doha office of the Taliban was established, but the start-stop negotiations at the time went nowhere.
A quick pullout from Afghanistan has been on President Donald Trump’s mind from the time he took office. In August 2017, he seemed to be signalling the opposite when he said “conditions on the ground”, and not “arbitrary timetables” would guide US military strategy in Afghanistan. But by the middle of 2018, it was clear that the White House was pushing for direct talks with the Taliban urgently. By then, Robin Raphel, the former US diplomat, who was also in the AfPak team of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration’s Special Representative, had already opened a back channel to the Taliban. The stage for the talks was set then. Including last week’s, there have been four rounds over the last year. With the announcement of a near agreement, the US has also outrun Moscow, which had begun its own process, including regional players Iran, China and several Central Asian states – India sent a “non-official” delegation to these talks — to find a resolution in Afghanistan.
Pakistan & Taliban
The Imran Khan-led Pakistan government has claimed credit for getting the Taliban to talk to the US, and for organising the UAE round of talks last December. “Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the US in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people,” Khan said then. Khalilzad met with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa last year after the UAE talks. In an interview to Arab News, Pakistan military spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said: “We are a facilitator. We have done our job of bringing them to the negotiating table. What is discussed and how the process moves forward will depend on progress during every meeting.”
While it appears that Baradar’s release contributed to pushing the talks along, it is also true that the Taliban were none too pleased at his long incarceration. Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban is not as complete as it used to be. The Taliban rebuffed Pakistan’s efforts to host a round of talks in Islamabad, prompting the military spokesman to deny to Arab News that the Taliban were excluding Pakistan from the peace process.
If the endgame is indeed playing out, what might a final agreement look like? The news outlet Pajhowak Afghan News recently reported that the Rand Corporation, a US-based security think tank, had drawn up a peace agreement whose main elements are: an 18-month transitional government that will oversee power sharing between the Taliban and other sections of the Afghan polity; extension of US assistance to Afghanistan; the creation of a high Ulema council which, along with the interim government, will discuss changes to the Constitution; amnesty; Taliban’s renunciation of links with terrorist organisations; release of prisoners and formation of an impartial team to implement the draft deal.
However, the US State Department has denied any plans for an interim government in Kabul. The presidential elections are due in July; it is unclear how the talks might impact this process, how much power sharing the Taliban are ready for, and with whom.
India, which emphasises its age-old ties with Afghanistan, has watched the endgame unfold with no role to play in it. New Delhi’s Chabahar project to bypass Pakistan and access Afghan markets through the Iranian port may well amount to nothing in a fast-changing Afghanistan. India enjoys tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan, something that Pakistan does not have, despite President Trump’s derisive put-down of India’s $3 billion development aid to Afghanistan. But Army chief General Bipin Rawat presaged a question that may soon get louder: can India remain relevant in Afghanistan without getting on the “the bandwagon”, as he put it, of talks with the Taliban?