Afghan Peace Process: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The 18-year-old war in Afghanistan has become a thorn in the foot for US civil, political and military establishment. The bitter after taste from the never-ending conflict has forced US negotiators into a corner. The US wants the war to end as early as possible even if it means caving into Taliban’s demands.

Even after Trump called off an almost-achieved peace deal with the insurgents after the death of a US soldier in a roadside terrorist attack in September, Washington seems increasingly desperate to continue negotiations with Taliban. In the last two months, news of Taliban and US Ambassador Khalilzad’s unofficial meeting in Islamabad and prisoner swaps are proof that Washington is becoming increasingly timid to secure a deal one way or another.

These developments occurred behind the curtain without attracting much attention although there were sporadic mentions of the need and desire from both sides to resume talks; however, nothing was official yet.

However, Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram Airfield for the thanksgiving dinner with the troops brought the peace negotiations in the spotlight. Speaking to the troops at the field, Trump, flanked by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that the talks between the US and Taliban have resumed.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal.  We’ll see if they want to make a deal.  It’s got to be a real deal, but we’ll see,” Trump said during his meeting with Ghani. “If they do, they do. If they don’t they don’t. We were getting close.”

Although the announcement did not accompany any details as to how “close” the two sides were to agree on a deal, but it did lay the groundwork for representatives from the US and Taliban to prepare for talks yet again. The Taliban side also reciprocated US overtures and announced they were ready to resume talks without any preliminary conditions.

The statements from the Taliban were wrapped in caution avoiding any brash criticism of the US president laying bare their need for talks to resume. Contrary to the US, the Taliban leadership has found itself in a favourable position.

Their motives from securing a peace deal are to ensure they are accepted as a legitimate political authority in  Afghanistan especially by the United States. The deal allows the insurgent group the global validation it needs to assume a greater role in the country’s affairs.

Despite their willingness to secure a deal from the US, the Taliban seems in no mood to compromise. The death of US soldier and the deadly attack near the Bagram Airfield this week are some examples of Taliban’s callous attitude towards the US.

On the other hand, despite multiple requests from the Afghan political leadership and US for a ceasefire as one of the preconditions for the peace deal, the Taliban have vehemently and repeatedly refused to end hostilities.

A similar demand was also floored by the US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad while meeting the Taliban in Doha last week. Khalilzad visited Kabul and Doha last week to resume talks with the Taliban and Afghan leadership where he met with President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban’s Haqqani.

Although the contents of the meeting were not disclosed, Taliban’s spokesperson Sohail Shaheen confirmed the meeting in a tweet.

After meeting the Taliban and Afghan leadership, the Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan on Friday to meet the country’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Chief of Army Staff Qamar Jawed Bajwa.

Although relations between Kabul and Islamabad have worsened over the last few months after Pakistan embassy officials were harassed by the Afghan security forces, Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to secure a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem.

During the meeting, Khalilzad and Pakistani leadership reiterated the need for continuing the peace talks with the Taliban. Qureshi said that reducing violence in neighbouring Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan. He also emphasized the need for inter-Afghan dialogue to ensure all stakeholders in the country agree to the outcome of the negotiations.

But as Khalilzad was preparing to wrap up his visit, the Taliban attacked US Airbase in Bagram. The attack was targeted at an under-construction medical facility near the US base. The insurgents infiltrated the compound and engaged in a ten-hour long firefight with the US and Afghan forces. The attack prompted US military airstrikes.

Lambasting the Taliban, Khalilzad tweeted that, “When I met the Talibs today, I expressed outrage about yesterday’s attack on Bagram, which recklessly killed two and wounded dozens of civilians. Taliban must show they are willing & able to respond to Afghan desire for peace.”

In another tweet, he said that “We’re taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic.”

And once again, the peace process was paused without any date for resumption. The time, like the last time as well, the blame lies with the Taliban who have repeatedly failed to show any commitment towards achieving a peaceful solution to the war.