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Latest Phase of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Off to Slow Start

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Latest Phase of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Off to Slow Start

Agreeing on an agenda will prove a difficult task, with the Afghan government prioritizing a ceasefire and the Taliban a political arrangement. 

Latest Phase of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Off to Slow Start
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Matthew DeVirgilio

On January 5, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban resumed in Doha, Qatar. The talks have so far met expectations and are moving slowly, beset by widely different priorities and continued violence in Afghanistan.

Per reporting by TOLO News’ Sharif Amiry, the Afghan government negotiating team insists that a ceasefire must be a priority in the talks, while the Taliban want discussion of a ceasefire to come after an agreement on the shape of a future government.

This echoes reporting by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet back in September, shortly after the intra-Afghan talks began. Doucet reported at the time that, “For the Taliban, [a ceasefire] can only come once progress is made on the shape of a new order. There will be another semantic search for a ‘pause’ [in violence], a ‘reduction’, and the like.”

After nearly three months of negotiations, the two sides had a “breakthrough” and agreed on the rules and procedures for the talks in early December. Shortly thereafter, the two sides announced a three-week break before negotiations would resume, on January 5, on an agenda for the ongoing talks.

When the talks resumed, however, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader who negotiated a U.S.-Taliban deal struck in February 2020, and the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Hakim were in Pakistan. The Associated Press reported that they were in Pakistan until last Wednesday, January 6. 

U.S. defense officials were also in Pakistan last week, with acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey meeting with his Pakistani military counterparts. A readout of his meeting with Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant General Sahir Shamshad Mirza conveyed thanks for “Pakistan’s ongoing role in supporting Afghanistan Peace Negotiations” and noted discussions on “the urgency of reducing violence and restarting meaningful negotiations between the Islamic Republic negotiators and the Taliban.”

In a comment that will shock exactly no one, an anonymous Taliban official told the Associated Press that the Taliban doesn’t trust the Afghan government. It’s safe to assume the distrust goes both ways.

Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected the idea of an interim government. “This seat is not mine, this seat [the presidency] belongs to the nation of Afghanistan, this system has dignity, you all voted for me,” Ghani said in remarks in Nangarhar on January 7. “My duty is to transfer the power to the successor of the government in a legal way.” Ghani’s apparent resolve to serve the entirety of his elected term (running through 2024) has been construed by the Taliban as him clinging to power. As reported by Voice of America, the Taliban “said Ghani’s insistence on clinging to power could obstruct the way to a ‘negotiated and peaceful solution’ to the long Afghan war.”

Meanwhile, insecurity persists in Afghanistan. A roadside bomb in the capital, Kabul, killed three, including a spokesmen for the Interior Ministry’s public protection forces. The Islamic State’s Afghan contingent has been increasingly active in recent months, claiming a series of attacks in Kabul including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students, and rocket attacks in December targeting the major U.S. base in Afghanistan.

The transition of power in Washington also hangs prominently in the background of the intra-Afghan talks. The deal settled between the U.S. government and the Taliban in February 2020 envisioned a total withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021. Outgoing and embattled U.S. President Donald Trump late last year ordered U.S. forces drawn down to 2,500 by January 15. Trump leaves office on January 20. Incoming President-elect Joe Biden has advocated for keeping a small intelligence-based presence in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders have flatly rejected the possibility of any foreign troops remaining in the country.

With reporting from Kathy Gannon, Rahim Faiez, and Tameem Akhgar for the Associated Press.