US, Taliban edge toward peace deal but hurdles remain

A major hurdle in finalizing the expected peace deal between the Taliban and the US seems to have been overcome thanks to the former’s willingness to take steps to reduce violence in Afghanistan.

This was a persistent US demand, even though it would have preferred a permanent cease-fire during the peace talks. The Taliban still does not refer to the reduction in violence as a cease-fire and insists that it is only for a limited time. Still, the de-escalation by the Taliban and US-led NATO forces and the Afghan government could create the right conditions for moving the peace process forward. The understanding of reducing violence is not yet formally in place and, until that happens, there will always be the risk of escalation causing deadlock in the peace talks.

An escalation in violence was noted on Sunday, when the Afghan government claimed its forces carried out 13 ground attacks and 12 airstrikes in 24 hours against the Taliban in nine provinces. They killed 51 insurgents, injured 13 and arrested six. The Taliban, on the other hand, claimed its fighters conducted two attacks in Kunduz and Balkh provinces, killing 18 security forces personnel, injuring three and seizing a large cache of weapons. Airstrikes by government forces in Balkh also killed seven civilians, including three children, triggering protests by locals and prompting President Ashraf Ghani’s administration to send a fact-finding mission to investigate the incident.

The crash of an American military aircraft in a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan’s central Ghazni province on Monday could cause a further escalation in violence and affect the peace talks if ongoing US investigations conclude that the Taliban shot it down. Until now, the US has dismissed Taliban claims about shooting down the plane and killing several senior American servicemen. There are also questions about whether the Taliban possesses anti-aircraft missiles that could hit planes flying at high altitudes.

As always, Taliban leaders appear more hopeful than the Americans, as they expect the peace deal to be signed in the coming days.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

Unlike the US, which is likely to consider the promised Taliban de-escalation in violence as a step forward, the Afghan government has made cease-fire a pre-condition for holding peace talks with the group. This is tricky, as the Taliban still refuses to recognize the Afghan government and hold direct talks with it. The beleaguered Afghan government obviously isn’t presently in a position to dictate terms to the Taliban.

The government is also facing strong criticism from a coalition of Ghani’s political opponents led by Abdullah Abdullah — who is chief executive in their national unity government and was his main rival in the Sept. 28 presidential election — for impeding the peace process. The election’s final result has not yet been declared. The opposition stalwarts, who include former President Hamid Karzai, want unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, making full use of the opportunity presently available. They are against the monopolization of the peace process by the Ghani administration and are demanding the formation of an inclusive delegation of all anti-Taliban forces to negotiate peace.

The national unity government, formed in 2014 through the mediation of the US following a disputed election for president, will come to an end once the result of the latest presidential vote is announced. It has suffered from disunity during the last five years, as Ghani and Abdullah often disagreed with each other. Now, a victory for Ghani, who is leading after the preliminary vote count, is unlikely to be accepted by Abdullah and could trigger protests. In case Ghani is unable to win in the first round, the second round of voting will have to be delayed until the end of the winter. This could hold up the intra-Afghan peace talks, even though the Taliban and the US are keen to complete the process.

As always, Taliban leaders appear more hopeful than the Americans, as they expect the peace deal to be signed in the coming days. This may not happen, as the US has to first ensure that the concerns of the Afghan government are addressed and the Taliban accepts a roadmap, including the format of the intra-Afghan dialogue, for the post-peace deal period.

For the Taliban, securing a deal that ensures the withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces is the most important objective of the peace talks with the Americans. As the Taliban deputy leader and chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar noted in a recent interview, their fight would continue until the “aggression” against Afghanistan comes to an end and all foreign “occupying forces” are evicted. Reluctantly agreeing to reduce violence initially and perhaps even accepting a longer cease-fire is the price the Taliban appears willing to pay to achieve the goal of forcing the international coalition’s forces out of Afghanistan.

There are quite a few hurdles on the way to making Afghanistan peaceful and stable after four decades of conflict. Once the Taliban-US peace agreement is signed and the mechanism for implementing it under the watchful eyes of international guarantors is agreed upon, intra-Afghan talks can be undertaken. China, Germany and other countries have expressed a willingness to host such meetings, though the Germans are expected to take the lead after having already co-hosted with Qatar one such dialogue in Doha last year.
A way out will have to be found to put together a unified national delegation of anti-Taliban groups, including the Afghan government, to hold talks with the Taliban on better terms. This will also overcome the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly to the Afghan government, as the group has repeatedly promised to interact with any and all Afghans for the sake of peace and national reconciliation.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1

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