Washington’s one sided talks with the Taliban behind closed doors have triggered mistrust between Afghanistan and the United States. If backdoor talks continue without Kabul’s engagement, the Kabul-Washington gap will grow wider which will sideline global stakeholders in general and Afghanistan in particular, argues Hujjatullah Zia.
After the fifth round of peace talks in Qatar, US and Taliban representatives said that strides had been made in the negotiations, but the Kabul government is suspicious of a positive outcome –lashing out at Washington for sidelining Afghanistan in the talks.
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that “peace requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire” adding that a draft agreement had been made on the first two.
The timeline for a troop pullout and US military presence are a bone of contention between the two sides. The Taliban have demanded a withdrawal within six months, but the US side has been pushing for three years saying that wrapping up a military presence of 18 years in an orderly way required time. Although the Taliban have guaranteed that any future government in which they participate would cooperate with international efforts against terrorism, Washington still views the Taliban with doubt and mistrust as US National Security Advisor John Bolton said that “there is no blind trust in the Taliban in this administration”.
The US and Taliban negotiators will haggle over Washington’s military presence in Afghanistan in the sixth round of talks, in which the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to participate, too.
With Washington’s one-sided approach to the negotiations, sidelining both the Afghan government and regional stakeholders, Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib rebuked Mr Khalilzad for not briefing Afghanistan on the latest round of talks. He said Mr Khalilzad had sidelined Afghan government because of his ambitions to be a “viceroy” in an interim government, proposed by the Taliban, adding that it was “a deal that doesn’t end in peace”.
Washington showed a backlash against Mr Mohib’s remarks noting that Mr Khalilzad called Afghan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani to brief him after the talks in Doha. US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale stated that “attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the department and serve only to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process”.
So far, the Taliban have refused to hold talks with Kabul government calling it as “not legitimate” but they have signaled positively to negotiate with Afghan political figures. Therefore, Afghan politicians headed by former President Hamid Karzai talked with the Taliban in Moscow in February and the second round is slated on April 14 in Doha. Disapproving of political figures for negotiating with the Taliban, the Kabul government is preparing to convene Consultative Loya Jirga (Grand National Assembly) for establishing an inclusive and national team for talks with the Taliban.
Regional and global stakeholders have supported Kabul’s stance. For example, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that an Afghan-led and owned peace process could lead to a durable peace in Afghanistan urging that democratic gains should not be compromised at the table.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said, “All the international efforts should be in concert and aligned in support of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace efforts as agreed in Geneva last November.”
NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative Nicholas Kay has also said, “Peace doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that will require intra-Afghan talks and a multitude of voices to be heard. Troop levels depend on the outcome of negotiations.”
Washington’s one sided talks with the Taliban behind closed doors have triggered mistrust between Afghanistan and the United States, especially as Mr Khalilzad did not travel to Kabul to brief Afghan officials after the fifth round of talks. If backdoor talks continue without Kabul’s engagement, the Kabul-Washington gap will grow wider which will sideline global stakeholders in general and Afghanistan in particular. The talks that ensue will hamper the peace process.
Currently, there are two main issues to be resolved: First, the Taliban have to negotiate directly with Kabul government. If Kabul does not accept the result of peace accord, which will be signed between the Taliban and US delegations, the peace process will reach a deadlock. Second, establishment of interim government is unacceptable to Ghani’s administration. President Ghani is calling on the Taliban to participate in the presidential election, but the Taliban urge establishing an interim government since they have no chance for success in the election. This tug-of-war should be resolved through direct talks.
In the sixth round of peace talks in Doha, the Taliban and US delegations are going to hash out intra-Afghan dialogue and the timeframe for US troop withdrawal. It is hoped that the Taliban will agree to directly negotiate with Ghani’s administration so that both sides will reach a consensus to end the conflict.
Hujjatullah Zia is a columnist with the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He contributed this comment to Khmer Times.