Three days ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan peace talks, visited Kabul for the first time since the U.S. president ended talks with the Taliban. The visit comes in the wake of Khalilzad’s meeting with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani representatives in Moscow, where all parties called for the resumption of talks between the United States and the Taliban.
While the growing enthusiasm for the resumption of peace talks is laudable, what remains unanswered is this: has the collapse of the peace talks complicated the negotiations further? Will it change the bargaining position of the parties directly or indirectly involved?
Seemingly, the Taliban have further enhanced their leverage since the cancellation of the talks. They are not the ones traveling to regional capitals to ask for the resumption of talks. Rather, they are responding to requests from Washington and other friends from the region. The Afghan Taliban are still inflexible when it comes to recognizing the Afghan government as a legitimate party to the conflict. The group’s main focus remains on developing ties with the regional states to advance their diplomatic clout. Already, Pakistan and China have hosted Taliban representatives in an effort to bring them back to the negotiating table. Moreover, several statements released from regional capitals have insisted that the United States directly engage with the Taliban to resume the stalled peace talks.
While Washington for its part is eager to get back to the talks, it’s unclear if anything has changed regarding forcing the Taliban into agreeing to a better deal. U.S. President Donald Trump canceled peace talks with the Taliban as he didn’t want to sign a “bad deal.” What we know is that Khalilzad has been pressing the Taliban to declare a ceasefire. However, so far, no development has taken place on this front as the Taliban continue to refuse to any sort of ceasefire. Moreover, a recent report that the United States is quietly reducing its troop levels in Afghanistan before signing an agreement with the Taliban raises questions regarding the former’s commitment to the peace process. In such a state, Washington’s ability to directly negotiate with either regional stakeholders or the Taliban is expected to face setbacks when it comes to getting a so-called good deal, which has become a talking point since the collapse of the talks.
Amid the ongoing debate over resuming the peace talks, the Afghan government sits on the sidelines. While all major regional states maintain that intra-Afghan dialogue is critical for achieving sustainable peace, it’s unlikely that the Taliban will engage with the Afghan government before they have signed an agreement with the United States. A recent statement by the Afghan national security advisor (NSA) that “while the government for the past couple of years was ready for negotiations with the Taliban without any precondition, that has changed now” has added an interesting mix to the situation.
The Afghan government doesn’t have leverage to make demands at a time when it’s not even a party to the peace process. Arguably, the Afghan government has probably realized that none of the parties directly involved in the peace process is concerned about the role of the country’s elected government. Moreover, this should be embarrassing for a government that is claiming to have won the ongoing general election in the country. To an extent, this embarrassment was on full display about two weeks ago when the Afghan Taliban were meeting Khalilzad in Pakistan to discuss possibilities to resume the peace process in the middle of an election.
Therefore, on the part of the Afghan government, coming down hard on the way the peace process is being carried out is the only way to win some leverage, if not regionally then domestically. “At least a month of ceasefire is the Afghan government condition for starting any negotiations,” noted the Afghan NSA in his newly released demands. Moreover, the statement added that the Afghan government believes that the Taliban are divided and cannot guarantee that their political leaders control their commanders and fighters.
Additionally, the government has presented its own seven-point peace plan for Afghanistan’s future. Among other things, the peace plan notes that “we [the Afghan government] also want to address the root of the problem and that is Pakistan.” The criticism of a country that is central to the Afghan peace talks and the introduction of its own conditions underscore that the resumption of talks in its current form is not being welcomed by the Afghan government. Kabul is signalling that any outcome that denies space to the government in the peace process will not be accepted by the Afghan political elite, particularly the government.
Talks may eventually resume, but the actual peace process just became more complicated.