The most recent round of intense negotiations between the United States and the Taliban reflects how serious all parties are about achieving peace in Afghanistan. The fact that the talks in Doha continued into the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan hints that both parties want to achieve concrete results. It is encouraging that both sides have indicated slow but steady progress toward resolving one of the most intractable conflicts in contemporary times.
Overall, the process that started in autumn has moved toward a convergence of views on two issues: the parties have agreed on the withdrawal of US forces in return for Taliban guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil for terrorist activities against Washington and its allies. The details have yet to be ironed out in a workable peace agreement.
But this nascent agreement is overshadowed by two other related issues that are still being hashed out by the two negotiating teams and other parties to the Afghan conflict. The first one is to agree on the format of a dialogue between various Afghan parties so that they can focus on a political transition toward the endgame of achieving reconciliation and lasting peace. The second and more immediate issue is to agree on declaring a cease-fire or a substantial reduction in the levels of violence.
As a fighting machine emerging from a civil war a quarter-century ago, the Taliban have primarily relied on violence. Even today, they lack the kind of political capital, strategy, and leadership that could free them from a dependence on force to capture or manipulate power.
The opening of their political office in Doha in 2013 and some positive statements about their willingness to share power indicated that they are open to negotiations.
But their reluctance to end large-scale violence comes with a heavy toll on human life, and it is not only tragic but also tends to vitiate the atmosphere for peace negotiations. The postponement of a preliminary event related to the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha last month exposed the gaps in the positions of Afghan parties; the Afghan government, its political opposition, and civil society still need to work hard to achieve a unified position to talk to the Taliban.
Such complications make scepticism about the prospects of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan understandable. The checkered history of such efforts casts doubts on the entire process. What has added real uncertainty about the future of the Afghan peace process is the somewhat confusing signals emerging from Washington.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed a determination to end the longest US war by withdrawing his country’s troops from Afghanistan. But the US defence establishment and leaders of the Democratic Party have warned against a hurried withdrawal of troops that could lead to the emergence of a dangerous political and security vacuum in Afghanistan.
This has complicated the approach and cooperation of Afghanistan’s near and far neighbours who have played a significant role in the various phases of the country’s war since the late 1970s. For example, Pakistani supporters of the Taliban – who are assumed to be playing a major role in bringing the insurgents to the negotiating table – were nervous over the United States’ mixed signals. They felt Washington’s direct talks with the Taliban were giving the insurgents the wrong ideas. The refusal of the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government further compounded the problem.
But there are some silver linings. The Moscow summit in February demonstrated that diplomats could take the process forward by facilitating a meeting between the Taliban and Afghan politicians.
The growing consensus between the United States, Russia, and China for supporting the reconciliation process in Afghanistan is a major achievement; it could insulate the peace process from great power rivalries, which were a major destabilising factor throughout Afghan history. This agreement has probably kept the process intact despite serious obstacles.
As a seasoned diplomat, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has worked hard to keep all three concentric circles of negotiations between Afghan parties, neighbouring states, and global powers moving.
Experience shows that if any individual circle of negotiations becomes static, it tends to subvert the motion of the other two. An intra-Afghan dialogue is a key, and it must be inclusive enough to be owned by a majority of Afghans. But the truth is that it can’t be successful in isolation without regional and international support and solidarity.
The nascent process must contend with many known and potential spoilers among states and non-state actors.
There are reports about new Taliban mobilisation in the western districts of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Islamabad will need to go beyond words to effectively ban sanctuaries for the 'Afghan Taliban'.
Ongoing regional rivalries also cast a dark shadow over the future of Afghan reconciliation. Taking a cue from the cooperation among the United States, Russia, and China, Pakistan and India need to take tone down their destabilising rivalry in Afghanistan. Concerns about the fallout of growing tensions between Iran and the United States and Tehran and its Arab rivals are also genuine.
During a recent visit to Kabul, it became clear to me that the Afghan resolve for peace and a return to prosperity is unrelenting. But reducing the current levels or violence, perhaps by pulling off an indefinite ceasefire, will be the key to quickly create the conditions for leading towards lasting peace through reconciliation.
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