Peace may be closer than ever in Afghanistan, as the Taliban and the US get ready for talks on June 29 with the aim of reaching a peace deal before the country’s presidential elections in September.
Afghan officials won’t attend the peace talks in Taliban
Afghan officials have been left out of talks with the Taliban and the group has refused to sit at the same table with the government officials despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s repeated calls for talks in the past. The Taliban was overthrown by the US-led coalition invasion in 2001, and the Taliban maintains the idea that the country is occupied by foreign forces, deeming the Afghan government illegitimate and a “foreign” puppet.
Ghani has been preparing the scene for a future ceasefire with the Taliban. In May, he launched a four-day Loya Jirga -- a grand assembly that brought together 3,200 participants including politicians, tribal elders, and other prominent figures to prepare a shared strategy. The Taliban did not take part in the meeting, in which the government also called for an immediate ceasefire.
However, with the Taliban rejecting the ceasefire, the Afghan government has not found a way into the peace process with the Taliban.
In February, Taliban representatives and Afghan officials including former president Hamid Karzai met in Moscow, Russia, for a two-day conference.
Afghan delegations from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and senior Afghan politicians have met in Moscow three times since 2017, but Ghani said those who attended the conference had no authority to negotiate.
The US is determined to leave Afghanistan
The US, which still holds a presence in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission to train, assist and advise (and to hold counter-terrorism operations), began talks with the Taliban in February of this year. The aim was to convince the Taliban to sit at the table with Afghan officials and help create conditions that can aid an American exit from the country.
“As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops’ presence and focus on counter-terrorism,” he said. “We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement – but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” he said.
Taliban wants to focus on the withdrawal of US troops before the ceasefire
The group agreed on a framework for a peace deal earlier but a Taliban source told Reuters after the sixth round of talks that intra-Afghan talks wouldn't be discussed until the seventh round, which are set to begin on the 29th of June in Doha, Qatar.
The number of American troops in the country has been reduced to about 14,000, less than a quarter of the maximum number of American soldiers that have had a presence in the country over the last 18 years.
The Taliban demands a complete US withdrawal from the country.
During the conference, the Taliban and the US will discuss a timeline for withdrawing the remaining US-led troops. In return, the Taliban will guarantee that it won’t plot attacks from Afghan soil. But the group said that’s a promise to be kept only when their objectives have been reached.
“Once the timetable for foreign force withdrawal is announced, then talks will automatically enter the next stage,” said Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha on Monday.
"While we've made clear to the Taliban that we’re prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we've not yet agreed on a timeline to do so," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.
The US keeps in touch with Ghani government ahead of talks
Pompeo spoke with the Afghan president at a surprise meeting in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss peace talks ahead of the US meeting with the Taliban. They also discussed the security situation in the country ahead of presidential elections in September.
“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.
The elections, set to be held on September 28, were postponed twice due to security concerns. Thousands of additional security personnel were deployed during the country’s parliamentary elections last year in October as the Taliban issued a call for a boycott and vowed to disrupt the polls. The Taliban’s attacks against the elections in October resulted in a record number of civilian casualties, the United Nations said in a report.