US Taliban talks
The Taliban officials told several US media outlets that they have held face to face meetings with American diplomats in the capital of Qatar, Doha last week. The Top US diplomat of State Department for South Asia Alice Wells led the US team in these talks. The meeting reflects “a reversal of US long time policy” of not holding direct talks with the Taliban whereas the latter was insisting on face-to-face negotiations. It was decided to hold more meetings and the knowledgeable said that a possible ceasefire may have been discussed.
According to one Taliban official, who was part of four member delegation, said there were very positive signals from the meeting which was conducted in a friendly atmosphere. However, he clarified, “You can not call it peace talks.” “These are series of meetings for initiating formal and purposeful talks. We agreed to meet soon again and resolve the Afghan conflict through dialogue, adding that the talks had been held without the presence of Afghan government officials.”
The meeting in Doha, where Taliban maintain a political office, was followed by two earlier meetings between US officials and Taliban representatives in the recent months, a source said. A second Taliban official told, “We have held three meetings with US diplomats and we reached a conclusion to continue talks for meaningful negotiations.”He said that they would first exchange prisoners and then discuss other issues that could restore peace to Afghanistan. The Taliban representative said that their delegation made it clear to the Americans that peace can only be restored when all foreign forces are withdrawn. On the contrary the US would press for maintaining its military bases in Afghanistan. Another meeting is expected before Eid but the exact time and place is not clear.
The moves comes as the Afghan government and the United States have stepped up efforts to end the 17 years war in Afghanistan, following the 10 days ceasefire observed by government forces in the last days of Ramadan and a reciprocal ceasefire by the Taliban fighters during Eidul Fitr. The few days truce which saw unarmed Taliban mingling with Afghan Army soldiers, offered a glimpse of first concrete vision of possible political settlement since an earlier attempt at peace talks broke down in 2015.
Although Taliban refused to accept an offer by President Ashraf Ghani to extend the Eid ceasefire, behind the scene contacts have continued and the government has said that it is considering another ceasefire during the next month on Eidul Azha holidays.
As hopes of possible formal negotiations have risen, the United States has agreed to participate directly in the talks although its stated position was that the Taliban should initiate a dialogue process with the sitting Afghan government and US will join it later. The Taliban official said that talks took place with the approval of leadership council. The two sides discussed proposals to allow the Taliban free movement in two provinces where they would not be attacked by government forces, an idea that President Ashraf Ghani has already rejected. The US demand to allow their bases in Afghanistan also came under discussion.
The State Department, while taking a vague position on the US-Taliban meeting, had confirmed that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells had visited Doha but she met United Arab Emirates government officials to talk about their contributions to the situation in Afghanistan. The State Department spokesman referred to a July 9 comment from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US would support, facilitate and participate in these peace discussions, but peace must be decided by Afghans and settled among them. President Ashraf Ghani main spokesman, Haroon Chakansuri said last week that peace talks would be Afghans led and would build on the international consensus in support of peace.
The regional diplomatic initiatives in the form of tripartite meetings, comprising Pakistan Russia and China, in Moscow and Quartet moots in Beijing is paying dividends. The prospects of political settlement on negotiation table are becoming visible. But the Unites States has started a triangular cold war against China and Russia whereas these powers have shown greater interest in the peace and stability of Afghanistan. The US demand of retaining military bases in Afghanistan can be looked into this perspective.
Another small but lethal dimension of Afghan conflict is the entry of ISIS in the war theater. A number of terrorist outfits have united under the umbrella of this international terrorist organisation. ISIS is carrying out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia is extremely worried about the spill over effect of this organisation to Central Asian States and eventually mainland Russia. Return of peace and stability to Afghanistan will remain illusive unless ISIS is eliminated.