I was surprised to see reports this week that face-to-face negotiations between the United States, Afghan officials, and Taliban leaders would take place soon. According to reports citing a senior Pakistani military officials, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif, following conversations with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul this week, confirmed that the Taliban would return to the negotiating table at Doha in March. According to the New York Times, anonymous Western officials noted that the “Taliban appeared willing to meet for negotiations in the coming month.” These talks, if successful, would represent the realization of a 13-year effort to negotiate for peace with the Taliban.
In any case, shortly after these reports emerged, both the U.S. and Afghan governments, as well as the Taliban, released statements denying that any talks were about to take place. “The United States currently has no meetings with the Taliban scheduled in Doha,” Bernadette Meehan, a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson, told the press. “We remain supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process whereby the Taliban and the Afghans engage in talks toward a settlement to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan,” she added. Ghani’s office released a statement noting that it would “not conduct any negotiation in secret from [the Afghan] people.” The Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid chimed in with a statement as well: “We do not have any plans for negotiations with anyone in Qatar. Regarding the negotiations, there is no new changes in the policy of Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan.”
In addition to the anonymous Western officials who spoke to the Times, an Afghan official close to Ghani told Reuters that “talks were expected.” Based on the Reuters report, the outstanding issue from the Afghan government’s perspective was the prospective location of these talks. That same official brought up the possibility that Beijing could be under consideration as a venue for this talks. This isn’t entirely unlikely as Beijing recently hosted an Afghan Taliban delegation and has grown increasingly involved in the Afghan reconciliation process. Other cities discussed in the Reuters report as possible venues include Islamabad, Kabul, and Dubai.
Between the varying reports citing anonymous sources and reports denying any planned talks from all parties involved, there is a considerable bit of ambiguity surrounding this situation. One possibility is that the Pakistan-Afghanistan-China process for talks has been conflated with a separate one involving the United States. Since 2013, when talks crumbled in Doha between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the United States, there have been no serious attempts to return to the negotiating table between the three parties. Several sources cited by Reuters, including senior diplomats and officials, were confirming plans for talks based on what they knew about Ghani’s meeting with Sharif; the United States may not be involved at all.
Assuming that talks will take place, there are still considerable barriers to success. First, the Taliban continues to envision itself as a legitimate government-in-exile — something that Afghan government cannot accept. The 2013 Doha process crumbled, in part, due to an impasse on this issue. Additionally, the Taliban’s apex leader, Mullah Omar, has to symbolically approve his organization’s participation in the talks. As I discussed in a post yesterday, the Taliban is currently unable to guarantee any sort of cessation in violence due to several disparate groups acting under its label. Mullah Omar is likely the only figure who could unite all groups identifying as part of the Taliban in Afghanistan behind a single banner, allowing negotiations to take places. Omar, however, hasn’t been seen in nearly 15 years and is notoriously reclusive.
Additionally, it remains to be seen in the United States will have any role to play at all in a China-led reconciliation and negotiation process. Based on recent statements made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a Chinese process would include Pakistan, China’s close ally, and, of course, the Afghan government and the Taliban. In the past, however, the failure of negotiations wasn’t entirely due to the involvement of the United States. The Afghan government and the Taliban still face major rifts on issues of key importance, including the nature of any post-reconciliation government and constitution. Though China would likely be a successful host for talks, it is unlikely that Beijing’s mediation would help the Afghan government and the Taliban overcome these differences.
Despite considerable looming ambiguity about the prospects for a return to talks, the one glimmer of certainty is that the Pakistani military is taking an active interest in conditioning the Afghan Taliban’s return to negotiations. Pakistan’s influence over the Afghan Taliban, while not absolute, is considerable compared to other state parties involved in the negotiation process. With the Taliban splintering into regional franchises and Mullah Omar nowhere to be seen, Pakistan may be able to offer the sort of pragmatic incentives that senior Taliban leaders need before sitting down for negotiations. Ghani’s government has also spent considerable energy reaching out to Pakistan, understanding its role in any sustainable Afghan peace.
For now, what we know about the possibility of a return to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is shrouded in uncertainty, but there remains good reason to believe that 2015 could be the beginning of a renewed process involving Pakistan and China.