Taliban Confirms Talks With U.S. Peace Envoy

Last week, Taliban leaders met with the U.S. special envoy for peace Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar to discuss ending the 17 year conflict in Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad had recently been appointed to the position by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a move widely seen as an attempt to boost the profile of Afghan peace efforts, and to inject a sense of urgency into reaching a settlement of America’s longest war, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This is the second time in four months the U.S. has held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives. Mr. Khalilzad reportedly told Afghani reporters that an interagency team of White House staff, Pentagon officials, and U.S. intelligence agencies have been formed to spearhead the peace talks.

In a statement to the Journal, a representative from the State Department determined that Mr. Khalilzad “… held a number of meetings with stakeholders as part of his trip to explore how best to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.” While the exact contents of these meetings have not been revealed, one Taliban official present expressed “positive signals” afterwards, according to a report from Al Jazeera.

Both sides have certain goals they would like to achieve through the deal. According to Voice of America, the U.S. is intent on maintaining two military bases in Bagram and Shorabak, a condition that the Taliban are strongly against. Instead, they are pushing for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, and for the Afghan government to release fighters from prisons across the country, with the hopes of achieving a more Islamized government system which would align better with the group’s conservative religious values.

The meetings have been closely observed by the international community — particularly by the state of Afghanistan itself. While publicly lauding the talks, privately, President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern and resistance to the exclusion of the Afghani government in the discussions, according to a report from the New York Times. The peace efforts have received a lukewarm response from the government, who saw the U.S.-Taliban diplomatic efforts as undermining the sovereignty of the state and marginalizing the Afghan leadership. To add insult to injury, the Times also reported President Ghani first learned of the recent talks, not from the U.S. directly, but from a Taliban news report.

President Ghani, with the pressure of upcoming parliamentary elections, viewed the meetings as an insult to U.S.-Afghanistan relations, reportedly calling them a ‘breach of trust between the two nations.’ The U.S. has denied accusations of cutting out Afghan officials from the meetings, with Mr. Khalilzad releasing a statement urging both the Taliban and the government to form negotiating teams for the talks.

While a United States coalition forced the Taliban out of power in 2001 after their refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden post 9/11, the group remained active in the region, seizing districts across the country in recent years. Although they recently moved their base to Qatar, the majority of their operations are still believed to be running in Pakistan.

Though earlier this year, the group had agreed to their first ceasefire deal, the UN reported last week that in just the last nine months, 8,050 Afghans had been killed or injured primarily by antigovernment groups. These are remarkably similar numbers to last year’s, demonstrating that the conflict shows no significant sign of slowing. As America begins to send soldiers into a familiar war, the desire from the administration to seek a diplomatic solution grows stronger. And while neither side has shown much eagerness to compromise on their conditions, both have expressed a willingness to continue with such negotiations.

Taliban representative Zabiullah Mujahid stated, “Both sides spoke [about] an end to the occupation and a peaceful solution to the Afghan issue… Both sides agreed to continue meeting in the future.”

As the people of Afghanistan arrive at the polls, it will be hard to predict if the Taliban and the U.S. will likewise come to the table and move forward with the peace talks, or if the process will simply disintegrate into more chaos. Many hope the peace talks and elections can bring some much needed stability to the region and its population.