Afghan peace talks a difficult proposition

Afghan peace talks a difficult proposition

Though the Afghan government has offered unconditional peace talks to the Afghan Taliban in the past, President Ashraf Ghani was more specific with this week’s announcement as he mentioned a number of steps Kabul would take once prospective negotiations begin and a ceasefire is announced.
The Afghan president unveiled his government’s strategy for peace at a conference in Kabul attended by officials from 25 countries and the heads of international organizations. This was the second “Kabul Process” regional peace conference aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict.
The Taliban has in the past rejected every peace overture by the Afghan government, arguing that it was powerless to take decisions. Instead, the Taliban offered to talk directly to the US, with the latest offer made about two weeks ago through a letter addressed to the American people. In the Taliban’s view, the Americans are the power behind the Afghan government and talks should be held with them rather than the Afghans, who are heavily dependent on Washington for staying in power.
Ghani’s new peace bid is at odds with US President Donald Trump, who recently said this is not the time to hold peace talks with the Taliban. However, one would like to believe that Ghani consulted the US before making his offer. 
As Ghani’s new offer of talks is elaborate and not vague like in the past, the Taliban could give it a closer look. Still, it seems unlikely the group will unconditionally agree to accept the offer and enter into dialogue with Kabul at this stage. 
The specifics in the Afghan president’s offer include recognizing the Taliban as a political party once it comes to the negotiating table and announces a ceasefire. He also offered security to Taliban families and to facilitate the release of Taliban prisoners and remove their names from the UN Security Council’s black-list after establishing a legal framework for this purpose. Ghani also repeated an earlier offer to open an office for the Taliban either in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan for holding peace talks, although he didn’t rule out meetings in other countries. 
The trust-building measures proposed by Ghani included prisoner swaps, issuing passports to Taliban members to undertake visits, and facilitating their access to the Taliban office and media. He also offered to consult the Taliban on launching major economic development projects in Afghanistan and on governance issues.

As President Ghani’s new offer is not vague like in the past, the Taliban could give it a closer look, but it seems unlikely the group will unconditionally agree to enter into dialogue at this stage.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

Though Ghani argued that he has made no pre-conditions for peace talks with the Taliban, his offer isn’t open-ended, as the Taliban would need to recognize the Afghan government and respect the rule of law before the steps mentioned by the president are put into practice. This ensures there will have to be some give-and-take to make things happen. 
As if he was trying to offer legitimacy to the Taliban in the hope of tempting them to join the peace process, Ghani argued that the decision to bring peace and stability was in the group’s hands and they could join the government for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Afghanistan. 
Not unexpectedly, Ghani made no mention of the presence of the nearly 20,000 US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan, even though their withdrawal has always been the Taliban’s main demand. In fact, this is the major hurdle in persuading the Taliban to agree to the peace talks. The one constant the Taliban has demanded is the pull-out of foreign forces. This is obviously unacceptable to the US and its allies, particularly the Afghan government, which desperately needs international support, both military and economic, to survive and run the country. 
Though the Taliban has suffered heavy casualties — largely from the intense airstrikes undertaken by US jet fighters, gunship helicopters and drones since Trump’s announcement of his new, military-focused Afghanistan and South Asia policy last August — the stalemate on the battlefield hasn’t changed. There is no evidence yet that Taliban recruitment and the group’s commitment to fight has declined and, until that happens, bringing them to the table for talks remains a difficult proposition. 
The timing of Ghani’s offer of talks is important, as winter is on the way out in Afghanistan and soon the Taliban will be preparing to launch its annual spring military offensive. There is a window of opportunity as the warmer weather in Afghanistan has, over the past three decades-plus, been known as the traditional fighting season. That would mean more fighting and bloodshed and less chance of peace. 
• 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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