The representatives from the United States and the Taliban have been meeting for direct talks in Qatar. What has led to such talks and what would be the outcome of the meetings for the US role in Afghanistan, and more importantly, for the future of Afghanistan remain crucial questions. Although undesirable for many stakeholders in Afghanistan, it has been clear for some time now that the Taliban will feature in some form or the other in Afghanistan’s political system. What adds to the already complex dynamics panning out in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s insistence to consider the Afghan government only as a party in the negotiations, sans its overwhelming legitimacy as the government of Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Afghan government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani, however weakened, in the face of Taliban’s control of population and territory, considers itself the unquestionable representative of the Afghan people.
A number of redlines have been crossed when it comes to the Americans talking to the Taliban. The resurgence of the Taliban as a fighting and political force in the affairs of Afghanistan has led to dramatic shifts in the way the Americans and other regional stakeholders deal with them. From denying to talk to the Taliban before they abjured violence to accepting talks along with the Afghan government and other stakeholders, to now talking directly to the Taliban, Washington has indeed come a long way. The battlefield situation in Afghanistan, American’s desire to have a face-saving exit from the long-drawn war and the near futility of trying to militarily defeat the Taliban has substantially changed the US strategy in the Afghan war and the reconciliation process.
The debates over an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces, comprising of the remaining US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the future of American presence in the country has seen its ebbs and flows from the Obama era to the Trump administration. Meanwhile, countries like Russia, China, and Iran have increasingly injected their influence on the course of things in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always remained an undesirable but a critical part of the jigsaw maze in the pursuit of stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s intentions to maintain its strategic depth in Afghanistan and its wariness of any upswing in Afghanistan’s relationship with India has largely driven Pakistan’s approach. While India has been one of the most substantial donors of civilian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, its role in matters of politics and security in the country has been circumscribed by geopolitical circumstances and self-restraint to some extent.
The emerging ambiguity surrounding the future of Afghanistan seems to depend much on what entails the talks between the US and Taliban, sans the legitimate government of Afghanistan, which the Taliban prefers to call a “puppet regime”. Apparently, the intra-Afghan talks, between the Afghan government and the Taliban is set to follow an agreement between the US and the Taliban, focussing on questions of withdrawal of foreign forces and Taliban’s commitment not to let Afghanistan turn again into a safe haven for global terrorism.
It has been some years since the Americans have officially ended their combat role in Afghanistan and the Operation Enduring Freedom has transitioned into the Resolute Support Mission. While the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has officially been in charge of fighting anti-government forces and maintaining security, foreign forces still play a crucial role in providing support. Moreover, as the US-Taliban negotiations are expected to set the stage for intra-Afghan talks on the question of a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement, there has been a rise in civilian casualties simultaneously. As such, guns have not stopped amidst the various permutations and combination of peace talks.
An inclusive team selected by the Afghan government representing people from different corners of the country and different walks of life will be meeting the Taliban face to face to take the peace process forward. There seems to be an understanding across the board that the return of the Taliban is set to return as a political force in Afghanistan’s polity. However, there are pestering issues of differences between the Ghani led the Afghan government and the Taliban, regarding the nature of the polity that will be evolving in Afghanistan.
While the US lead negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has been busy opening different channels of communication with a number of stakeholders, there have been concerns of conceding too much to the Taliban, even before the peace talks among the Afghans have commenced. At this juncture, all stakeholders seem to want some kind of a settlement to put an end to the violence and ambiguity regarding power-sharing in Afghanistan. However, the devil is, as always, in the details and that is why the US-Taliban direct talks become crucial, in terms of negotiating the finer details, which will pave the way for the equally if not more complex intra-Afghan talks.
*** The author is an Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal ***