After 17 years of the war led by the United States in Afghanistan, there has never been more momentum to launch a formal peace process.
First came the Taliban’s brief truce back in June 2018. Then came the news that Kabul has given its grudging support to Washington to talk directly to the Taliban — one of the insurgents’ top preconditions for negotiations.
And over the last few months, a series of informal talks have taken place involving the Taliban and Washington. The most promising meeting took place some days back in Abu Dhabi. Very senior representatives from the Taliban’s political office in Qatar and their top leadership in Quetta sat down with officials from the United States, but also from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — perhaps the three countries with the most influence over the Taliban.
In effect, the stars seem to be increasingly aligned for prospective talks. The White House, impelled by a president itching to head for the exits – as evidenced by his recently revealed intention to remove nearly 7,000 troops within the next few months – is all-in on efforts to launch reconciliation. Kabul is fully committed to pursuing peace. Key regional players Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran are all onboard. And, most significantly, the Taliban have telegraphed their willingness to explore peace.
This isn’t to understate the obstacles.
First, at the end of the day, no matter how many interlocutors may be willing to engage with them, the Taliban have little incentive to stop fighting a war that they believe they are winning. Trump’s recent troop withdrawal decision will only further embolden the insurgents. And additionally, the Taliban have repeatedly rejected the Afghan political system — meaning that convincing the insurgents to lay down their arms and share power or contest elections will be quite hard to do.
But one of the most immediate obstacles is the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government.
For years, they have spun the same propaganda line: it is the American occupiers we are fighting, and so we shall only talk to them. Indeed, the Taliban have held talks with stakeholders from many nations over the years but only rarely have they agreed to sit across the table from Afghan officials. Indeed, while top representatives from Kabul – including the Afghan national security adviser – travelled to Abu Dhabi, the Taliban refused to meet with them.
An Afghan peace process cannot proceed without the Afghan government itself. And there can be no peace deal or broader reconciliation without Kabul.
This is where Pakistan can be helpful.
For years, Washington has sent confusing messages to Pakistan. It has urged Islamabad both to crack down on Taliban leadership sanctuaries and to coax the insurgents to the peace table.
The situation has evolved, however. The Taliban no longer need coaxing to come to the table. But they need coaxing to talk to Afghan officials at that table.
For Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States envoy for Afghan reconciliation, convincing the insurgents to talk to their country’s government is the challenge of the hour. And to this point, he has not succeeded. Islamabad may claim that its leverage over the Taliban has declined. In reality, so long as Taliban leaders continue to be based in Pakistan – and they are – Pakistan will retain leverage. And it now has a great opportunity to make a lasting contribution to the peace process.
If Pakistan can succeed in convincing the Taliban to sit down with Kabul, as difficult as that will be, the benefits would be great. Islamabad’s sputtering relations with Kabul and Washington would get a shot in the arm and Pakistan’s regional reputation would improve.
And most importantly, a long-elusive peace process would be poised to begin.
The writer is the deputy director of Asia Program and a senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.
This was originally published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.