In a luxury hotel in Doha, Qatar, negotiators representing the Afghan government and the Taliban resumed peace talks this week after a long pause. During the month-long pause in peace talks, killings surged in Afghanistan even as a new administration in the United States shaped its policies toward the long-running conflict.
The Afghan peace talks went to a break in late December last year. The Taliban met the Afghan government negotiators once in early January 2021, then the talks stalled. The Afghan peace talks were scheduled to resume in early January 2021, but Taliban negotiators were absent until late February.
Meanwhile, in the United States President Joe Biden took over on January 20. Now as the peace talks resume, some of the Biden administration’s policies are emerging. The administration has signaled a tougher approach toward the Taliban and friendlier ties with the Afghan government.
Mohammad Naim, a Taliban negotiator, said that the talks on the night of February 22 were held in a “good atmosphere.” He added that both sides “emphasized a resumption of peace talks.”
Nader Nadery, an Afghan government negotiator, however, said that the Taliban made excuses for not talking. Similarly, the Taliban had previously refused to negotiate while they “demanded the U.S. to release all Taliban prisoners who are imprisoned by the [Afghan] government,” said Nadery. “These were just tactics of the Taliban.”
Instead of talking with the Afghan government during the month-long hiatus, the Taliban made regional trips, including trips to Iran and Russia.
While the peace talks stalled, the Biden administration began reviewing the U.S.-Taliban agreement, forged under the previous Trump administration. U.S. officials were in close consultation with the Afghan government, according to one senior Afghan official. The Biden administration has yet to publicly announce a clear policy toward the “forever war” in Afghanistan, but the looming deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal was the number one concern.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February 2020 calls for a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 just over two months away. As the deadline loomed, concerns grew over the Taliban’s continued ties with al-Qaida, the terrorist group that attacked the United States in 2001 and dragged the United States into the never-ending war in Afghanistan. The February 2020 agreement requires the Taliban to cut ties with the group and refuse to harbor foreign fighters, including al-Qaida.
In response, the Taliban recently issued an order on cutting ties with foreign fighters. The order, issued by Taliban’s military commission, said that the Taliban would punish those fighters who harbor foreign fighters. The resumption of talks with the Afghan government this week also signaled that the Taliban was trying to show their commitment to the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
But the Biden administration has already been friendlier toward the Afghan government.
Over the course of recent months, multiple phone calls were made between top U.S. officials and Afghan officials. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan; so did Secretary of State Antony Blinken. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Afghan counterpart, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib. In all of these phone calls, the U.S. officials said that the administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban agreement and was committed to supporting the Afghan government.
“While U.S. has highlighted dialogue with Ghani and the Afghan government, any engagement with the Taliban has gone unmentioned,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at Crisis Group. “This may be a correction to the high profile, legitimizing engagement of the Trump administration. The Biden team may consider a quieter approach to the Taliban more effective. But it’s a notable shift.”
The previous Trump administration had pursued high-profile engagement with the Taliban, bypassing and angering the Afghan government. President Donald Trump had a phone call with Mullah Ghani Baradar, deputy Taliban leader. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met and posed for a photo with Barader in Doha.
Amid the diplomatic wrangling, the war continues to claim lives, both civilians and combatants alike. The U.S. side insists that the agreement it settled with the Taliban came with the understanding that there would be a reduction in violence. But the Taliban have been reluctant to commit to a full ceasefire. Since signing the agreement, they have waged war largely in rural areas against the Afghan government, killing scores of Afghan forces. The Afghan government also blames the Taliban for widespread magnetic bombs and assassinations in urban areas, including Kabul. Some days, Kabul is rocked by four or more explosions; bombs terrorize the city.
So far, the peace talks have failed to make the country safer, even for civilians. The United Nations Mission to Afghanistan documented 3,035 civilians killed in 2020, the seventh consecutive year the death toll topped 3,000. Another 5,786 civilians were wounded last year. Civilians were largely victims of the ground engagements between the Afghan government and the Taliban and improvised explosive devices.
Even as talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September 2020, civilian killings surged in the final quarter of 2020, according to the U.N. report. “There was an escalation of violence with disturbing trends and consequences,” read the report.
“Ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian ceasefire,” said Deborah Lyons, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Representative for Afghanistan. “Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians.”