Zalmay Khalilzad’s Round Seven, Take One

Iqbal Khan

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s seventh round in Doha is in the offing. In tandem, next intra-Afghan round is also around the corner; and for this, two venues are under consideration: Qatar and Germany. An earlier major meeting between the Taliban and Kabul was abruptly cancelled in April after disagreements on the invitees’ list. Germany has been talking with the Taliban and the Afghan government in an effort to restart intra-Afghan peace talks.

Berlin’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Markus Potzel, has recently visited Kabul and contacted the Afghan government and Taliban officials in Doha at least twice last month. “The current chance for a process toward a more peaceful Afghanistan should not be missed. If the friends of Afghanistan — and Germany is one of them — together can help in this effort, then we should do it,” Potzel said. “In the end, only the Afghans themselves, including the Taliban, can decide upon the future of their country”, he added.

Moscow meeting (May 28-30) also had a parallel intra Afghan dialogue effort on the side-lines. It showed Russia’s growing interest in Afghanistan. Apparently, the US, Russia, China and Europe have reached a consensus on the Afghan peace format. Intra-Afghan consultations and Moscow Format meetings have elevated the process of restoring peace in the country to an entirely new level, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. “Activities within the framework of the Moscow Format and the intra-Afghan dialogue meetings, which marked the beginning of a new phase of the peace process and maximized its legitimacy by involving all political forces of the country, including the opposition, are intended to make an important contribution to Afghan settlement,” Lavrov said at a meeting that marked the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan.

Confusion mixed with despair in Afghanistan on June 01, as former president Hamid Karzai erroneously declared that the Taliban had announced an Eid holiday ceasefire. Taliban quickly dismissed these reports saying the former president may be referring to a message about last year’s Eid holiday ceasefire. “It is hoped that media and social media users do not become victims of (this) mistake,” said Taliban spokesman ZabihullahMujahid. Soon after Karzai’s team acknowledged the mistake. It came as disappointment to war weary Afghans, who had pinned their hopes on a last year like truce during this Eid as well. Karzai said the participants spoke about all the issues that are necessary for lasting peace in Afghanistan, how to bring peace there and “to put an end to the current occupation and to form a future government in Afghanistan with the participation of all Afghans.” “We affirm the withdrawal of foreign troops, we affirm there should be an Islamic state in Afghanistan and also that all Afghans should participate in future government,” he added.

ZalmayKhalilzad has once again informed Pakistan that a “substantial progress” has been made during ongoing talks with the Taliban as he discussed “additional steps” Pakistan may take to further expedite the process. Statement came after he wrapped up his trip to Islamabad on June 03, where held talks with senior Foreign Office officials and also met Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General QamarJavedBajwa. Khalilzad’s visit came as Afghan Taliban refused to agree on a ceasefire during Eid but said talks with the US would continue. The US Embassy in Islamabad said Khalilzad held discussions with Pakistani leadership on developments in the Afghan peace process.

Khalilzad noted that the United States continues to be encouraged by the role Pakistan has played to advance the peace process and discussed additional positive steps that Pakistan can take and the importance of recent efforts for improving US-Pakistan relations. Khalilzad will “encourage all parties to work towards intra-Afghan negotiations that lead to a final peace settlement”, the State Department added.

In his Eid message, the Taliban leader HaibatullahAkhundzada stressed on his previous stance about an end to the presence of the US military in Afghanistan and said the group is open for talks but they expect “honesty” from the United States. “No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad or forget our 40-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives,” Taliban chief said in a rare message. “The doors of dialogue and negotiations have been kept open and at this very moment, the (Taliban) negotiation team… is engaged in negotiations with the American side,” Akhundzada said.

Despite uncertainty Khalilzad saw some positives in the Eid message by Afghan Taliban chief. Khalilzad said that the statement provides “a desire to participate in dialogue with other Afghans and in a final political settlement that will require power sharing. “All good things.”

Taliban spokesman Mohammad SuhailShaheen said the Taliban will be ready to talk with all Afghans, including those from the Ghani administration once the country is “liberated.” “A free Afghanistan is one of our dreams, that is why we have made so many sacrifices,” he said. Shaheen added that the Taliban opposes a temporary cease-fire as it wants a permanent one, and this is possible only when foreign occupation ends. He said the Taliban refuses to talk to the Afghan government because to end the occupation, it is necessary to talk to occupiers. “And it is clear that the occupiers are the Americans,” Shaheen said. Despite Zalmay’s claims of progress, closing of major gaps in the stated positions of both sides is not discernable.

Let’s see whether the seventh round is fruitful or it turns out to be a repetition of earlier rounds. In the meanwhile President Trump’s deadline of July for Zalmay is approaching fast.