There is cause for cautious optimism so long as troublesome elements within the government and the Taliban are not allowed to derail the process.
A series of developments in recent days has raised hopes that the intra-Afghan peace process, which includes the Taliban, may finally start. This would finally bring years of violence to an end.
The newly formed unity government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, has released some 900 Taliban fighters from different prisons after a surprise Taliban ceasefire coincided with the Muslim festival of Eid al Fitr.
The militant group has refused to engage with the Afghan government, the condition being that its fighters are released as per the peace deal signed with the United States in February.
“I think (prisoner release) is a very positive gesture. Now the Taliban should honour their part of the agreement and continue with the ceasefire and push for intra-Afghan talks,” says Amina Khan, director of Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan affairs at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI).
A good turn of events
The US-Taliban deal, which envisages some 12,000 American troops pulling out of Afghanistan over the next 13 months, has created a bitter feeling in Kabul as the Afghan government was not involved in the negotiations that took place over several months.
That deal also foresaw the start of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul administration from 10 March, but the process was not able to start due, in part, to a political impasse within Kabul.
Both Ghani and his chief rival Abdullah had proclaimed victory after last September's elections, triggering a political deadlock.
Earlier this month, the two leaders set aside their differences and agreed to a power-sharing deal under an agreement where Ghani serves as president and Abdullah takes the role of chief negotiator with the Taliban. Abdullah’s group will also get 50 percent of cabinet posts and other provincial governor posts.
Under the deal, former vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, will be made a marshal of the armed forces.
Khan says the developments must be viewed with cautious optimism, mainly because both men have shared power before as part of the previous government. When they took office in 2014, Ghani was president and Abdullah held the especially-created title of ‘chief executive’.
“That was also a unity government but very dysfunctional as one leader would undermine the other - they couldn’t even decide on a defence minister at one point.”
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So we have to wait.”
The invisible hand of the US
Ghani’s decision to release Taliban prisoners despite resistance from hardliners in his own government, has led some officials such as former Afghan spy chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, to say that it might embolden the militant group.
But Andrew Watkins, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, says it is neither caving in to the Taliban, nor is it a goodwill gesture.
“I think looking at it either way overlooks how dedicated and focused the diplomatic pressure of the UNited States has been in order to push progress forward and try to initiate the intra-Afghan talks,” Watkins told TRT World.
Kabul had been reluctant to release Taliban fighters in the wake of an escalation in violence. There are fears that some of those who were let go might return to the battlefield.
“The fact that things are moving forward over this Eid ceasefire seems to me clearly connected to the degree of pressure that the United States has put, it seems now, on both sides,” says Watkins.
The Taliban have, for years, made the release of its members a condition for starting peace talks. The US-Taliban deal says that 5,000 of the militants will be freed.
This decision, however, put Ghani in an embarrassing situation as Kabul was not part of the talks. He has previously suggested that it should not be up to the Americans to decide, and instead, is something that can be discussed once the intra-Afghan talks begin.
For Washington, however, moving the process forward is important.
The US attacked Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which were blamed on Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, on the pretext that he was hiding there at the time.
US President Donald Trump has achieved what has evaded his predecessors — he has extracted the US from a costly war that has left more than 2,440 American soldiers dead.
This, however, is just a fraction of the 100,000 Afghan civilians, soldiers and Taliban fighters who have lost their lives in the bloody conflict.
If the plan goes through, it will give Trump something to brag about during his presidential campaign later this year.
While the opposing sides in the bloody conflict have shown flexibility, some hawks are being accused of potentially trying to derail the peace process.
Earlier this week, Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of the NDS, or Afghan intelligence, said on television that he believed Pakistan continues to undermine Afghan security by harbouring the Taliban leadership - something that’s already something of an open secret.
“Blaming Pakistan for violence is not new; it has been done by some for 40 years. That does not make the claim false - only, it’s not useful for making progress in the current peace process, which is centered around getting the Taliban and Afghan government to speak to each other,” says Crisis Group’s Watkins.
“Calling for Pakistan to change its policies or be held accountable is, in effect, a complication.”
Amina Khan of ISSI concurs.
“Really, blaming Pakistan has become tiresome,” she says.
People like Nabil have even been critical of Qatar for hosting the Taliban leadership.
If there’s anyone who should be held answerable, opines Khan, then blame can be left at the door of the Americans who have signed the peace deal with the militant group.
“One has to be very careful about the spoilers - spoilers within the Afghan government particularly elements like Amrullah Saleh, Rahmatullah Nabil as well as external elements and people within the Taliban,” says Khan.
Saleh, a former interior minister and now a vice president, has time and again blamed Islamabad for attacks taking place in Afghanistan such as this month’s horrific attack on a maternity ward, which was claimed by the Islamic State of Khorasan (Daesh).
Saleh openly supports an ethnic Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement, which has domestic roots in Pakistan and has become a thorn in Islamabad’s side.
Some Taliban commanders who have a fairly large degree of authority in areas under their control might also want the conflict to endure, given that they benefit from illegal taxes and the drug trade. Peace in Afghanistan may threaten that income.