The clock on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is ticking. The problem, of course, is that it’s not clear how much time is left. That lingering uncertainty aside, the next milestone looks set for next week, with multiple regional outlets reporting that a summit in Istanbul, Turkey — proposed by the United States — is hoped to begin on April 16.
In Doha, negotiators from various involved parties — the Afghan government, the Taliban, the United Nations, the U.S., Turkey, and Qatar — are reportedly discussing the details of the conference. Sources speaking to TOLOnews suggested that U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had shared with both the Afghan government and Taliban sides details on the upcoming conference. The agenda remains a sticking point, as it does in the intra-Afghan talks more broadly.
The Biden administration has made no secret of its desire to exit Afghanistan, but the precise timing is undefined. Some reports indicate that the administration is seeking a six-month extension on the May 1 deadline, allowing for a “responsible” exit from Afghanistan. The proposed Istanbul summit has been characterized as a “huge, last-second gamble” at which Washington hopes to settle that extension and override the looming May 1 deadline set out in the February 2020 deal.
At the same time, there are ambitious hopes that the summit can form some kind of consensus on a way forward, likely involving a ceasefire and a new government. As VOA outlined earlier this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled his own roadmap to peace at the Heart of Asia in Tajikistan last week. His plan begins with a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban and a ceasefire, before moving forward to new presidential elections and the establishment of a “government of peace.”
Ghani’s plan is similar to a U.S. proposal that Afghan leaders pushed back against for being “coercive” before seriously considering it. Where the plans differ is the timing of possible government transition, with the U.S. plan emphasizing a transitional interim government earlier than Ghani’s most recent proposal. Ghani had stated that “The transfer of power through elections is an uncompromisable principle for us” and his plan appears to work a transition into the existing constitutional framework of Afghanistan.
The Taliban rejected Ghani’s proposal of elections within six months of a peace deal. The group has also not appeared as keen as the Afghan government and the international community on the Istanbul summit. The Afghan government, in the form of the High Council for National Reconciliation is discussing whom to send; the Taliban has not been reported to be having such discussions yet.
Meanwhile, the war continues in Afghanistan. A series of recent attacks and targeted assassinations perpetuates the atmosphere of instability, violence, and fear.
While all sides appear to agree that a political settlement, rather than a battlefield victory, is the only viable path to peace, that’s where the agreement ceases. The proposed Istanbul summit is, for the United States, an opportunity to eke out a path beyond May 1 that allows it to avoid directly reneging on its agreements with either the Afghan government or the Taliban. The United States could press on the fact that the Taliban has not necessarily adhered to the entire deal either, but that doesn’t move Washington any closer to its end goal: leaving Afghanistan. For the Afghan government, the Istanbul summit will be a mustering of international support and pressure on the Taliban to cut a deal, one that includes a long-sought ceasefire. It’s another opportunity to get talks moving. The wildcard remains the Taliban and whether the group judges the time ripe to settle up, or decides the current state of affairs and trajectory of the conflict is on its side.