Afghan peace process oscillations
The Trump administration is aiming to strike a deal with the Taliban before the Afghan presidential elections, for which new schedule shall be announced in due course. The Taliban, who control over 60 per cent of the Afghan territory, want the US forces to leave Afghanistan. Representatives of the Taliban, the US and several Asian countries gathered in the UAE on December 17-18. The talks were supposed to last three days, as per earlier official announcements, but neither side explained what prompted them to abruptly end the process. Afghan government officials also travelled to the UAE, but were not invited into the meeting. They met with other delegations and said that efforts to join the discussions continued. Afghan peace process in a a state of perpetual oscillations.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, publicly took credit for facilitating the “peace talks,” and reiterated that his country “will do everything within its power” to further the Afghan peace process. The US spokesperson said a recent letter from President Donald Trump to Prime Minister Imran Khan “emphasized that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring US Pakistan partnership.” He added: “We welcome any actions the Pakistani government takes to advance security, stability and cooperation in South Asia, including the fostering of negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghans”. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a separate statement, said, “Future negotiation meetings shall continue after deliberations and consultations by both sides with their respective leaderships.” Mujahid said the Taliban’s dialogue was exclusively with the US and “the focal point” of discussions with U.S. interlocutors was the withdrawal of all US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Taliban officials also urged US interlocutors to take into consideration “humane treatment of [insurgent] prisoners and their freedom” from Afghan jails. Khalilzad urged the Taliban to release an American professor and his Australian colleague who were kidnapped more than two years ago. Kevin King, 60, and Timothy Weeks, 48, from Australia were teaching at Kabul’s American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) before gunmen took them hostage near the campus in August 2016.
Taliban envoys presented “documented information and proof to the participants about indiscriminate bombings against civilians and demanded its immediate halt.” For their part, Afghan, the US and the UN officials accuse the Taliban of causing a majority of Afghan civilian casualties during battlefield and other insurgent raids.
Craig Nelson and Asa Fitch reported for Wall Street Journal that “While US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with a high-level Taliban delegation in one hotel in Abu Dhabi on December 18, representatives of the Afghan government stewed in another, waiting for a summons to hold indirect talks with the Taliban officials. By late evening, the government officials were still waiting.” Some delegates saw that as a potential route to formal talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The three-day parleys in Abu Dhabi are said to have made progress, despite the insurgent group insistence that negotiations should only focus on withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan.
Talks were attended by representatives of the Afghan Taliban, the US as well as officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This time Taliban’s military and political leaders attended the negotiations. Previously, Taliban were represented only by their political office in Qatar. This has renewed hopes of a possible peace deal. The presence of the Taliban leaders like Mullah Amir Mutaqi, Qari Yahya, Mullah Mohibullah Hamas and Mullah Abbas Akhund at the UAE talks suggests seriousness of the insurgent group towards a negotiated settlement.
The UAE government said it hosted the US-Taliban reconciliation talks in Abu Dhabi, with the participation of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. “The two-day Afghan reconciliation conference fructified in tangible results that are positive for all parties concerned,” the statement said. According to the statement, another round of talks would be held in Abu Dhabi to complete the Afghanistan reconciliation process. According to the UAE’s official news agency “Saudi Arabia and the UAE extend their thanks to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as the US, Pakistani and Taliban delegations for their effective participation and support for ensuring the success of the conference” .No further details have been available as to what exactly transpired in the Abu Dhabi meetings
Zalmay Khalilzad, who led the US side at the talks twittered: “Had productive meetings in the UAE with Afghan and international partners to promote intra-Afghan dialogue towards ending the conflict in #Afghanistan.” After conclusion of the talks, Khalilzad flew to Islamabad and Kabul and held an important meeting with the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Afghan leadership. ISPR Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor said regional security and Afghan peace process were discussed during the meeting. He said Khalilzad appreciated Pakistan’s efforts for Afghan peace process while General Qamar reiterated that peace in Afghanistan is important for Pakistan and assured continued efforts for bringing peace and stability in the region.
The Taliban spokesperson claimed that discussions focused on the complete withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. The spokesperson dismissed reports that any proposal was under consideration regarding the setting up of interim government in Afghanistan or a 6-month ceasefire. Many observers believe that the Taliban statement may just be meant for its foot soldiers and elements who are not in favour of striking a peace deal with the US or Afghan government. Earlier, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had said that the talks had begun and could take some time.
The latest push for a peace deal came after President Donald Trump wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, seeking Pakistan’s help for the negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict. After criticising and blaming Pakistan for months, the Trump administration had formally reached out to Islamabad seeking its help for the Afghan peace process. The reason the US sought seeking Pakistan’s help stems from the fact that its recent rounds of talks with the Taliban could not yield the desired results.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified. Taliban have refused to deal directly with the internationally recognized government in Kabul, which it considers an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.
Taliban, say the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is the main obstacle to peace. Even as the peace process gathers momentum, fighting has continued with heavy casualties on both sides. President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, stated that Afghan government had not taken part directly in the talks, however a team from Kabul met US and Saudi officials in the UAE.
Pakistan Foreign office welcomed a new round of talks between the Afghan Taliban and other international stakeholders: “Along with international community and other stakeholders, Pakistan is committed to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” said FO Spokesperson on Twitter: “Talks are being held in UAE. We hope this will end bloodshed in Afghanistan and bring peace to the region.”
Notwithstanding the optimism, Afghan peace may stay elusive unless occupation forces offer concrete concessions including firm timeframe for the departure of last foreign soldier and substantial restructuring of Afghan constitution.