While officials have been jubilant over an agreement between the two sides, a lot more needs to be done to end the cycle of violence.
For the first time in 19 years, the Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed on something. On December 2, they signed a principle agreement in Doha that sets forth a roadmap for the ongoing peace process.
It doesn’t bind the two sides to ending the violence, the bombings, the suicide attacks, the airstrikes, or the assassinations in which thousands of ordinary Afghans have been killed or maimed.
The result of the talks between Taliban negotiators and their counterparts from Kabul is an agreement to certain modalities which will kickstart actual talks. For example, when to meet, what sits on the agenda and who takes part in the discussions.
But for leaders such as Zalmay Khalilzad, the American troubleshooter on Afghanistan, even this miniscule step was a “significant milestone”.
“People are getting killed everyday. I will celebrate and say that this is a remarkable move if it helps end violence. I don’t see any signs of that yet,” says Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan researcher and rights activist.
Representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani held their first direct talks in September. But the two sides haven’t discussed anything substantial that can actually bring peace to the war-torn country.
“This principle agreement means nothing. There’s no discussion on the contents and no trust building steps that can lead to a comprehensive ceasefire at an initial stage.”
The discussions follow the deal struck between the United States and the Taliban in February, which stipulates the withdrawal of American soldiers against a promise that the militant group won’t allow extremist groups to use Afghan soil.
An elusive peace
While the reach-out to the Taliban is viewed as a breakthrough, it has done little to reduce the attacks and counter attacks. Civilian casualties have actually gone up this year, says the Human Rights Watch.
Between January and September 2020, more than 700 Afghan civilians were killed - many of them attributed to the Taliban, says the HRW. That’s a 50 percent increase in casualties over 2019.
“It’s not a breakthrough. It’s an icebreaker at best,” says Amina Khan, Middle East and Africa director at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) think-tank, referring to the agreement.
The Taliban continue to use violence as a bargaining chip and they have been further emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce American troop levels to 2,500 soldiers from the current 4,500 ahead of the schedule, she says.
“Obviously this gives leverage to Taliban to focus on the battlefield. They are still at war with the Afghan government. For them it's justified to use a military tactic to have more leverage when it comes to the negotiating table.”
The militant group, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 with an iron fist and enforced harsh punishments for small transgressions such as listening to music, has had its way so far in the peace talks.
The Taliban have managed to secure the release of 5,500 of their fighters from government captivity, as well as negotiating to have the names of their leaders removed from the terror list, and have dictated the timeframe for the talks.
“So far they have been the winners,” says Nemat. “There’s a possibility that both sides are coming to the negotiating table to buy time.”
Who’s really in control?
The Taliban have long given an impression that its rise from a group of ragtag fighters who were on the run after the US invasion in 2001, to becoming a formidable force, is because of the support it receives from the people.
Successive US-backed governments in Kabul have often been accused of corruption and failing to provide services and jobs that could win hearts and minds.
Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world heavily dependent on international financial support.
Just last month, a group of nations pledged $12 billion in assistance, provided Kabul shows a commitment to the peace process.
But to say that the Taliban are in control of half the districts in the country is a stretch, says Nemat.
The support which either the Taliban or the Afghan government has on the ground depends on how much respect locals have for the commander - whether he be aligned with the government or Taliban, she says.
“According to some estimates, there are over 30,000 villages in Afghanistan. No one controls those communities. They are self-governed. They can be taken hostage by the Taliban or a pro-government militia. But that doesn’t mean anyone is in control of them.”
In the end, it all depends on who can provide services such as healthcare and education, she says. “As long as the state, with the support of the international community, is primarily responsible for delivery of services, Taliban can not claim to be in full control of those territories.”
A time for compromise
What has become apparent is that Kabul must prepare to share a governing setup with the Taliban.
“To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for a Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that,” said Laurel Miller, the Asia programmer director at The Crisis Group, last month.
She also recommended that the UN Security Council play the role of the mediator to help the two sides agree on a mutually-accepted outcome.
“The Kabul administration should be open about what it’s willing to share and how it plans to accommodate the Taliban. Because up till now we don't know what's going to be discussed in the intra-Afghan talks in the sense of what concessions are being offered to the Taliban,” says Amina Khan of ISSI.
With the new US government of President-elect Joe Biden set to take charge next month, people are also wondering if Washington is going to alter its Afghan policy in any way.
“Although the Biden team is still reviewing the situation, I think the Taliban can jeopardise their deal with the US if they continue to increase violence. Biden is unlikely to tolerate senseless killings,” says Khan.
On her part, Nemat says Biden must push for a definite time frame to conclude the negotiations.
“The peace process didn’t start in 2020. We have been discussing ways to get out of the conflict since 2010,” she says.
“Talks can take forever. I have no problem with that. But the starting point should be an end to violence through a ceasefire. Because it’s killing our children, and damaging our future, socially, culturally and economically.”