Afghanistan has often been called the graveyard of empires due to its long history humbling the imperial powers of its time, be it the British or the Soviet Union. And the United States has been no different in this regard, as it has been dragged into its longest war to date in the landlocked country.
What first started off as only a three-day ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr gave a glimpse of hope and, since then, has been pursued by the United States to achieve as a permanent solution. Soon after, the US softened its line with regards to negotiations with the Taliban, and has been willing to sit at the same table with them as well. And since the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Representative to Afghanistan, an overall positive policy has been put into place.
The July talks mark the seventh round of negotiations between the two sides since 2018. After the June round, Khalilzad claimed that the US and Taliban have reached a draft agreement with respect to troops removal and not letting Afghanistan soil be used by international terror groups. The latest dialogue was meant to go into the nitty gritty as the US hopes to have an agreement in place by September, before Afghanistan’s elections.
However, given that the Taliban have straight out refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling them American puppets, there was no representation of elected or otherwise representatives from the country. To get around that, an intra-Afghan dialogue, jointly organised by Qatar and Germany, was also held in Doha from July 7-8 that included members of civil society and government as well as some Taliban leaders, albeit all in a personal capacity.
Gifts were exchanged during this, and a joint press statement was released that stressed the importance of reducing civilian casualties to zero, and expressing the consensus that post-US Afghanistan will have an Islamic legal system. Some basic ground was covered and concerns addressed by the actual stakeholders of the country.
The talks were followed by consultations on the Afghan Peace Process by the US, China and Russia with the notable inclusion of Pakistan and its involvement welcomed towards finding a long-term solution for Afghanistan. The four-party joint statement reiterated the need for maintaining trilateral consensus reached in April in Moscow.
What these developments have done is not only identified the relevant stakeholders in the country, but also bring them to the same table, which had been missing for some time. The US government’s willingness to do away with relying on India as the main partner in Afghanistan, and move back to the old frenemy, Pakistan, is also a rational strategy given the Islamic Republic’s close ties and influence over the Taliban.
While definitely a step in the right direction, the recent progress still falls far short of any concrete agreement. The main gridlocks remain in place, be it about the troops’ removal or the government structure of Afghanistan to be put in place once the US and NATO are gone. As the four-party statement statements, the agreements have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and that requires direct and official negotiations between the government and the Taliban – something that latter isn’t willing to do. That should be the main agenda of the next intra-Afghan dialogue that is expected to be held in Tashkent within three to four weeks.
Not only that, there are also questions of the sustainability of the agreement, if achieved. Given a scenario where the US completely withdraws all forces from the country, there is a possibility that the Taliban might return to their old ways, and we see a repeat of the 1990s when they had formal control over Afghanistan. The local forces aren’t capable to hold them and, considering President Donald Trump’s general stance, the US would also be unlikely to get its hands dirty and redeploy its boots on the ground, which means that there is the possibility of making the country a Taliban-ruled caliphate.
Furthermore, for any hope of peace, there must at least be some goodwill between the two parties, of which there currently seems to be none. That would require a cessation of attacks from the Taliban, which have continued in full force this month, the latest of which occurring on July 18, killing 12 at a police headquarters in Kandahar. Therefore, a more direct and official engagement between the Afghan stakeholders – the Taliban and the government or civil society – is a must, facilitated by the US or a regional power, if needed, and it should seal in ink some basic ground rules, beyond the extent of a joint press statement.