What to expect from the new round of Taliban peace talks

What to expect from the new round of Taliban peace talks
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Zalmay Khalilzad shake hands after signing an agreement in Doha to reduce violence in Afghanistan. Source: Reuters
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Daily US Times: The US and Taliban officials involved in a historic signing agreement in February in Doha studiously avoided referring to it as a “peace deal”.

Over the weeks that followed it was clear what was the reason behind it. While fighting with Afghan security forces continued but attacks by the insurgents on international troops stopped.

The agreement set out a provisional timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, providing the Taliban prevented international jihadist organizations or groups such as al-Qaeda from using their territory to attack the US or its allies.

It also committed the Taliban to beginning direct negotiations for the first time with the government of Afghanistan and other Afghan leaders to try to reach a political settlement.

Those talks are now set to begin in Qatar this week and the goal is to put an end to two decades of war and the loss of thousands of lives. They were scheduled to begin in March, but instead were held up for months by wrangling over a prisoner exchange plan.

Source: Reuters

The US-Taliban agreement promised “up to 5,000” Taliban prisoners would be released by the Afghan government ahead of the negotiations, in return for 1,000 members of the security forces held by the militants.

In a signal of how uncompromising the Taliban have been throughout the process, it insisted that exactly 5,000 prisoners should be freed, and that only detainees named on a list by the Taliban would be counted.

The Afghan government, which hadn’t been part of the US-Taliban talks, resisted. Officials in Afghanistan hoped they could extract some concessions out of the Taliban in return for the prisoners, but instead the Taliban raised the levels of violence.

Annexes to the US-Taliban agreement, which was never made public, were intended to set some limits to the fighting. The Taliban were allowed to continue operations in rural areas, but not in major cities, according to a well-placed source.

Meanwhile, the United States would only be allowed to conduct airstrikes within a specific distance of active battlefield operations, not on Taliban fighters resting in villages and camps. This left the militant group free to increase attacks on Afghan forces manning more remote checkpoints.

US troops in Logar province this July. Source: Reuters

In any case, Taliban, at times, did carry out large-scale attacks in some cities, perhaps waiting to see how the Americans would respond, while upping the pressure on the Afghan government. There has also been a spate of targeted assassination attempts on pro-government figures, many of which have gone suspiciously unclaimed.

Eventually Afghan President Ashraf Ghani relented, released all but 400 of the inmates, who he alleged were responsible for particularly serious crimes.

Even after the decision was made to release them, further delays happened. In part because the government of Afghanistan demanded a number of soldiers held by the Taliban should also be freed, in part because Australia and France objected to the release of a handful of prisoners who had been involved in killing their nationals.

However, the US grew increasingly frustrated, and last week the remaining prisoners were freed, while plans have been drawn up to send the seven who are linked to attacks on foreign forces to Qatar, where they will be kept under surveillance.

What is at stake in the peace talks?

The next stage of the process talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, or “intra-Afghan negotiations”, will revolve around an actual “peace deal”.

Officials, and of course ordinary Afghans, hope a ceasefire can be agreed although, until now, the group have seemed determined to continue fighting until their demands are met.

Source: Xinhua/Shutterstock

They see violence as their best form of leverage, and are cautious of allowing their fighters to lay down their weapons, in case it becomes difficult to redeploy them or they drift towards rival militants in the Islamic State group.

Negotiators will also try to establish some kind of agreement on a political future for Afghanistan.

The task seems daunting. How to reconcile the competing visions for Afghanistan? On the one hand the “Islamic Emirate” that the Taliban cherish to, on the other, the more modern, more democratic Afghanistan built over the past two decades.

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