By Simran Walia*
United States President Donald Trump’s administration has called for direct talks between the American envoys and the Taliban to end the 17-year long conflict and work towards peace in Afghanistan. The US led invasion in 2001 had removed Taliban from power. However, until now, the Taliban controls 45 percent of the country’s districts. The Afghan strategy by Trump last summer, which aimed at boosting Afghan security forces and the presence of the US troops, did not prove to be effective enough to break the conflict.
The Taliban has refused for direct talks with the Afghan government as it finds the government illegitimate, but demanded to negotiate with Washington. It finds America the real power behind the post 2001 Afghan state. Since long, the Taliban have demanded a complete withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan, while it is difficult for the Afghan government to force the NATO troops to leave the nation. The main aim of the Afghan administration is to persuade the Taliban that the foreign troops may redeploy with regard to peace and stability, and not in response to the Taliban violence.
President Ashraf Ghani had called for a unilateral three-day ceasefire during the month of Ramadan with a hope of bringing the militants to the bargaining table, but was of no avail, rather they persevered. However, the ceasefire gave a small glimpse of the peace among Afghans and provided an impetus for the need of a political settlement. Previously, the US officials believed that Afghans would lead the peace process in the region. Nevertheless, seeing the situation of the country, America has overturned its stance and decided on negotiating with the Taliban. It also put forward the view that talks over political future such as the issues of Afghan political process, Afghan constitution and the situation of women would take place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The US is supposed to intervene in the issues pertaining to the level of the US troops and their mission.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kabul in July to further support the decision on direct talks for peace process. He said that, ‘we, the United States are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces’. America believes that it will certainly support and facilitate the peace discussions but at the end, the decision has to be taken and settled among the Afghans regarding the ‘Afghan solution’. American officials are quite hopeful that direct talks may move the peace process forward. Military strategies, which have been tested in Kabul, have intensified and will only prolong the war, and do not benefit anyone.
The Taliban too fears the dissolution of its country and shares some US goals on the issues of counter terrorism, counter narcotics and corruption. President Ghani believes that the diplomatic pressure from the United Nations and the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) may bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Alice Wells, the American diplomat, said that, ‘We are also calling on Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, to take additional steps in support of peace’. Pakistan has clearly not taken the decisive steps that it should have like expelling the Taliban elements who do not agree for the negotiations. It is also believed that the main Taliban group in Afghanistan is close to Pakistan. Kabul and Washington claimed that Islamabad is using this group as a proxy to curtail India’s role in the war torn region.
Therefore, another factor remains that with the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 20 in Kabul, the democratic process should be strengthened. In lieu of the elections, the decision of holding direct talks may point to the view that the Afghan administration does not have effective political authority. The US government will not benefit the electoral process in Afghanistan, because it is the confidence of the people in the electoral system that holds value. Henceforth, by engaging in direct talks between the Taliban and the US instead of the Kabul government, the message that Afghan administration is ineffective, will come out clearly to the Afghan voters, which may further undermine the entire electoral process. In addition, it is inevitable that the Taliban will demand a larger role in the next government if it engages in direct talks with the US.
The question of who talks to whom has indeed become a major hindrance to the Afghan peace process since 2011. However, the idea of talks between the United States and the Taliban is great as long as it does not affect the political and electoral process of Kabul. Nevertheless, the Afghan government also needs to negotiate directly with the Taliban since at the end even America believes that the peace process shall be ‘Afghan led and Afghan owned’. The date has not been finalised yet and the decision could be delayed too, but the willingness of the United States to hold talks indicates the urgency to end the conflict in Afghanistan.
President Ghani again attempted to offer a ceasefire in Eid-ul Adha and urged the Taliban to accept three-month long ceasefire for long lasting peace in the region. Unfortunately, the violence in the region of Kunduz seems to indicate that the Taliban did not accept the decision. They confirmed the capture of three buses with around 200 people in Kunduz. Moscow invited the Taliban, the US and Kabul for talks for the peace process next month. However, the decision of talks has been postponed keeping in mind Afghanistan’s position in the issue as Kabul and the US declined the offer to attend talks. President Ghani spoke with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to attempt to ensure that talks with the Taliban happen in presence of the Afghan government. The Afghan government believes that it is futile to attend peace talks in Russia and it would attempt to deal directly with the Taliban. How the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government push the peace process forward remains to be seen.
*Simran Walia is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi