American diplomats and Taliban representatives held direct talks for the first time in Qatar in July, in a volte-face from previous policy. Despite U.S. official claims that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” a six-member Taliban delegation reportedly met a senior U.S. diplomat in Doha in July. The U.S. State Department has neither confirmed nor denied that Alice G. Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, on her visit to Qatar, had met the Taliban. The Taliban reportedly claimed the meeting did take place. This reflected a noteworthy shift in Washington’s approach which hitherto had always pushed for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue in such peace talks.
Since the three-day ceasefire in Afghanistan in June, peace initiatives became more rapid from Kabul and Washington. As such, hopes were pinned on jumpstarting negotiations with the Taliban. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced American preparedness to facilitate peace talks. Pompeo’s visit to Afghanistan in early July was followed by Wells’ visit aimed at paving way for peace talks with the Taliban. The direct talk between the U.S. and Taliban, perhaps, is a result of the recognition that the Afghan war is in a military stalemate, necessitating steps that were undesirable in Washington before. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s emphasis on winning the Afghan war, many watchers of the Afghan conflict say that the war has in actuality intensified since the announcement of Trump’s Afghan strategy in August 2017.
The U.S.-Taliban meeting took place in the midst of rising violence in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that following the announcement of a U.S. strategy for Afghanistan last year, violent battles are ongoing in over 20 provinces in the country and at least 10 districts went under the control of insurgents though were later recaptured by security forces. Furthermore, violence returned to Afghanistan soon after the end of the first ceasefire on June 17, 2018, as the Taliban attacked check posts in Farah city, Anar Dara and Sheb Koh districts. The Taliban have staged similar attacks in Helmand, Badghis, Ghazni and Kunduz provinces.
Meanwhile, momentum for peace accelerated in Afghanistan. But amid hopes that there exists a space for peace in the existing Afghan quagmire, a string of Taliban attacks began on August 10, 2018, with a highly coordinated attempt to overtake the city of Ghazni, located 75 miles south of Kabul. The Taliban attack on the city of Ghazni killed an estimated 100 security forces and 20 civilians. In the meantime, the group has been looking to court Afghan people, promising them that they will stop suicide bombings in non-military regions, and declaring on Twitter and through other social media platforms that the Afghan soldiers who surrendered would be unharmed. The moves left many in the nation sharing hope that the Taliban and the Afghan administration would strike a truce and hold peace talks.
The attack on Ghazni was the most recent in a series of attempts by the Taliban to invade urban centers since the Afghan government canceled a one-sided truce with the militant group that was set up for Eid al-Fitr, the occasion denoting the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. The Baghlan province attack was the second huge Taliban strike on a military base in less than two days. Nine policemen and 35 soldiers were killed in the Baghlan province attack. Taliban militants overran an armed force construct in northwestern Faryab district on August 11, following a two-day assault. In Faryab province, 17 soldiers were killed and 19 others wounded when Taliban overran the military base. Kabul has not been entirely secured from militant attacks and violence. In Uruzgan Province, officials said the Taliban had mostly overrun the district of Chinarto, with the remaining government forces stuck in the Police headquarters.
Announcing the second, but conditional ceasefire, on August 19 in lieu to the occasion of Eid-al-Adha, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed readiness to support and participate in ongoing peace negotiations. He said, “The ceasefire is conditional, and will be observed if only the Taliban accepts the ceasefire and supports it.”
Does the spate of deadly violence overshadow peace prospects in Afghanistan?
The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be uncertain and violence has taken an increasingly deadly shape. At this juncture, Washington has appointed a new envoy for Afghanistan peace efforts — Zalmay Khalilzad, who is a seasoned hand for the region having served previously as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. However, several critics from Afghanistan and Pakistan have expressed concerns over the appointment of the new envoy. Khalilzad happens to be an ethnic Pashtun, and non-Pashtun voices do not favor his return to Afghanistan. So, it remains to be seen how Khalilzad’s background and his entry into the complex dynamic of war and peace in Afghanistan will pan out.
The deadly attacks carried out by the Taliban in recent months may indicate that there there are some factions of the Taliban who do not favor the peace talks. The Wall Street Journal reported that a person familiar with the Taliban is of the position that the spate of high-profile attacks carried out by the group were aimed at gaining more diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the United States as the peace process advances forward. The last truce between the Afghan government and the Taliban demonstrated a potential rift between the Taliban leadership and within the ranks, with some militants not favoring peace talks, thus hindering cohesion among the Taliban. The claims of probable rifts though were denied by the Taliban during the three-day truce in June.
Whether or not the peace talks will gain momentum in the midst of increasing violence and the Taliban’s propensity to undermine the government in Kabul remains an open question. Even if there is momentum toward peace talks, it is possible that there always will be some segments of the Taliban that will not be interested and find a way to thwart such efforts. It also remains unclear if the Taliban actually will engage in peace talks directly with the Afghan government. Negotiating peace, reconstruction and a stable polity in Afghanistan amid a raging violent conflict continues to be an uphill battle. Despite the Afghan High Peace Council’s spokesperson Ihsanullah Tahiri claiming that Kabul has been kept in the loop regarding the U.S.-Taliban meeting in Qatar and that such talks will only to be an enabler of an Afghan led initiative, it remains to be seen what Washington’s outreach to the Taliban will mean for an Afghan-led peace process.
Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India
Swati Sinha is Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India.