Intra-Afghan meeting is country’s best bet for peace
The intra-Afghan meeting due to be held later this month between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives in Doha is being seen as a positive development despite the fact it will take place against the backdrop of the Taliban’s spring offensive. It will be the first time a Taliban negotiating team has interacted with officials from the civilian government, though the group insists that the officials are attending only in a “personal capacity.”
Despite the fact the Taliban say the Doha event is not a platform for formal negotiations between the two sides, the fact remains that Taliban and Afghan government officials will sit under one roof and informally exchange views for the first time in 18 years. Such contact has not been made since 2001, when the Taliban regime was ousted by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
Both sides showed flexibility to make this happen. The Taliban agreed to interact informally with Afghan government officials, who accepted the proposal of US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to become part of a joint national delegation comprising Afghan opposition figures and civil society members.
This meeting in Doha is also referred to as “Moscow II” because it would be an informal continuation of the first intra-Afghan dialogue held in Moscow in early February. In fact, it would be an expansion of the Moscow process, as the Afghan government wasn’t included at the Russia meeting at all, as only prominent Afghan opposition leaders were in attendance. These included former president Hamid Karzai, presidential hopeful Mohammed Hanif Atmar, Ata Mohammed Noor, Younus Qanooni and Mohammed Mohaqiq; some of whom could be part of the new government that will be formed after Afghanistan’s September presidential election.
The Taliban declared the Moscow conference a success and the joint declaration following it endorsed major Taliban demands, such as the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan, the release of Taliban prisoners, and the removal of Taliban leaders from the UN Security Council blacklist. In the Doha meeting, it is safe to say Taliban representatives will be hoping for similar endorsements of their demands from the Afghan government representatives.
The next round of negotiations between the Taliban and the US are also expected to be held in Doha following the intra-Afghan talks. The two parallel tracks will reinforce one another. In the US-Taliban talks, which began in July last year, both sides have reported progress and the US agreed to withdraw its forces in return for Taliban guarantees that Afghan territory would not be used for launching attacks against America and its allies.
The launch of the Taliban offensive wasn’t surprising, as Taliban attacks had already intensified in recent months, even as the peace talks with the US had raised hopes of a breakthrough.
However, there are likely to be stumbling blocks as the Taliban-US and intra-Afghan talks move forward this month. The Taliban leadership has yet to reconcile with the idea of transitioning from an armed group to a political party and, by announcing the start of their annual spring offensive on Friday, they have made it clear that they will continue applying military pressure to force acceptance of their demands.
The launch of the offensive wasn’t surprising, as Taliban attacks had already intensified in recent months, even as the peace talks with the US had raised hopes of a breakthrough. The Taliban justified their new military campaign by arguing that President Ashraf Ghani’s administration had declared its own pre-emptive spring offensive last month and that US-led NATO forces had intensified airstrikes and ground raids.
The Taliban said Operation Fath is aimed at ending Afghanistan’s occupation and cleansing the country of invasion and corruption. Already controlling or contesting nearly half of Afghanistan, the Taliban said that Operation Fath’s objectives included capturing more territory in urban centers. They also invited Afghan security personnel to join Taliban fighters in a bid to achieve total victory.
The Afghan peace process has received widespread international support. The EU has offered to become a guarantor for the peace process, Russia has already hosted a number of peace conferences and China, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have facilitated the Taliban-US talks. Despite the sometimes convoluted, ironic processes of Afghan peace talks against the backdrop of increased military offensives, the upcoming intra-Afghan discussions in Doha offer the best hope for peace after 18 years of war.
- 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