The negotiations between the US and the Taliban in order to end a 17-year-long war hinge on some difficult compromises.
Taliban representatives will meet senior American diplomats in Qatar’s capital of Doha for another round of negotiations just days after a similar effort to find a way out of the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The talks scheduled to be held on Wednesday and Thursday will not include officials of the elected and internationally recognised Afghan government, which has been left out of the talks because the insurgent group refuses to recognise it.
This is the fourth time the Taliban leaders are meeting Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.
Khalilzad, a seasoned US diplomat was appointed in September last year to kick start the long stalled process, which could lead to withdrawal of American troops from the war-torn country.
The two sides met last month in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. They were supposed to meet in Saudi Arabia this week, but the venue was changed after Riyadh insisted that the Kabul government join the discussions.
Recent months have seen hectic rounds of talks between the Taliban and regional countries including Pakistan, Russia and Iran.
Just earlier this month it was reported that a Taliban delegation was in Iran to meet officials and discuss cooperation after the US pullout from Afghanistan.
Can there be peace?
Thomas H Johnson knows very well why the Taliban insurgents seem to be assured about getting a share in Afghanistan’s governance.
For months in 2008 and 2009, Johnson, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, worked as a counterinsurgency advisor for Canadian forces in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province.
“Probably the most contentious issue in Afghanistan has to deal with dispute over the water and property rights," Johnson told TRT World.
"Kabul’s justice system took six months to resolve that. Taliban’s justice system, which basically involved someone coming on a bike to hear the arguments, made decisions in 24 hours.”
This week Taliban representatives are meeting officials from the United States in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital, Abu Dhabi, for what is the latest round of difficult negotiations that have dragged on for years.
Officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the only countries that recognised the Taliban’s government when they were in power from 1996 to 2001– are also part of the talks.
Even though representatives of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani are in Abu Dhabi, the Taliban have stuck to their old demand and refused to hold direct talks with them, casting doubts on the process.
The secret nature of the talks makes it difficult for outside observers to know what’s actually being discussed inside. The information that has trickled out suggests that the Taliban are seeking representation in an interim government before the April 2019 presidential elections.
The growing unpopularity of Ghani’s government has worked in favour of the Taliban, which enjoys the support of more than half the population in some provinces, says Johnson, citing the latest Asia Foundation survey.
“But the only way for lasting peace is to have Afghan-to-Afghan talks,” he said.
Thousands of people, including Afghan civilians, have been killed in the 17-year-long war, which started with the US invasion after 9/11.
The conflict has spilled into neighbouring Pakistan, which is accused by Washington and Kabul of financing and militarily equipping the Taliban insurgents.
Just weeks before the talks began on December 17, Islamabad released a senior Taliban leader from detention. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was known as Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s deputy and had been in the custody of Pakistan’s security forces since 2010.
His release in October coincided with the heightened activity of Zalmay Khalilzad, the special US envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, who has met different stakeholders to speed up the peace process.
Johnson, who is author of the book Taliban Narratives, says that US President Donald Trump is looking for ways out of Afghanistan.
“Washington realises that this war can not be won militarily,” he said. “It’s another reality that the Afghan government will crumble in six weeks if not more without the support of international forces.”
What do the Taliban want?
The insurgent group has long called for American troops to leave Afghanistan, said Johnson. But over the years, the Taliban has shown flexibility in its stance.
“A decade ago they wouldn’t even entertain the idea of the talks before the international forces were pulled out, but now they have come to the negotiating table,” Johnson explained.
Other key Taliban demands include the release of prisoners, changes in the constitution to reflect the group’s strict Islamic views and the removal of its leaders from the sanctions list.
“Taliban are not actually on the terrorist list of the United States. In my view they purposely kept the Taliban off the list because they wanted to negotiate with them,” said Johnson.
It remains unclear how far the different sides will bend in the talks.
The Taliban now occupy or are in the process of vying for half the territory in the country. They are in control of 250 of the 400 districts.
Why would they compromise if they are winning the war?
Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army, said the Taliban realise that Afghanistan’s already teetering economy will be in a severe crisis if the Americans pull out.
“So the Taliban will agree to some sort of US influence in Afghanistan,” he said.
While the Taliban insist they won’t talk with the Kabul government directly, the group would have to hold negotiations with Afghan politicians such as Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai and Ghani as separate groups, he says.
“If not as a government, as individuals these people have considerable support,” said Lodhi.
Trump had accused Pakistan of scuttling the peace talks on previous occasions. Many US officials involved with Afghanistan say that Islamabad has been duplicitous by taking US aid and backing the Taliban at the same time.
Lodhi said Pakistan has acted only to protect its interests, just like any other country would do under the circumstances.
He asked, “What about the American duplicity when they went into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction?”
Dr Christine Fair, Associate Professor in the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University, does not see the talks leading to peace any time soon. And her skepticism is based on fraught Afghanistan-Pakistan relations
“Pakistan wants a client state in Afghanistan and many Afghans don’t want that,” she told TRT World.
On the other hand, successive Afghan governments have refused to accept the Durand Line, the 2,000-kilometre-long border between the two countries, she said.
“Afghanistan has long used the issue to antagonise Pakistan and on the back of it has encouraged Baloch insurgency and Pashtun nationalism.”
The Pashtun population straddles both sides of the border. On the Pakistani side, some of them have grouped together to launch a movement demanding more rights and the end of a military operation that was launched to eliminate terrorists in Pashtun-dominated areas.
So while Islamabad backs the Taliban, the insurgents, comprised mostly of ragtag fighters armed with rusty Kalashnikovs and rundown joggers have emerged as an alternative and gained legitimacy among the Afghan people because of the government's inefficiency to deliver basic services.
That has left some analysts to wonder if the Taliban leadership feels any urgency for peace.
“A lot of people would argue that Taliban are just playing games ... as the Taliban like to say, ‘Americans might have the watches, but we have the time’,” Johnson says.