This past week, A 14-member Taliban delegation along with other Russian and Afghan political leaders were invited to meet for peace talks in Moscow. Attendees included the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a representative of the Afghanistan High Peace Council and Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president. The talks were provoked by remarks from the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban and political head, who spoke publicly for the first time about the need for a peace negotiation. “The Islamic Emirate is firmly committed to peace, but the first step is to remove obstacles and end the occupation of Afghanistan,” Baradar told reporters, referring to the current presence of 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
A fundamental question to peace negotiation is determining when foreign forces will leave Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and Russian foreign policy officials have called for a complete withdrawal of foreign military from Afghanistan in order to expedite a peace deal. However, the U.S. has refused to do so until the Taliban establishes security guarantees, a ceasefire, and an “intra-Afghan dialogue” with other Afghan political leaders, including the Kabul government led by President Ashraf Ghani. Notably, neither Afghan President Ashraf Ghani nor members of Ghani’s administration were present at the Moscow peace talks, reinforcing Taliban claims that the Kabul government is a “puppet” of the West.
The talks come at a time when an end to violence in Afghanistan is nowhere in sight. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has emphasized the need for “faster progress” as fighting continues and “innocent people die.” Regarding the role of Russia in peace brokerage, Afghan ambassador of Russia, Abdul Kayum Kuchay, told Interfax, “It’s good news that Russia is calling on the Taliban [to come] and wants them to talk with representatives of the government and find a solution to the problem of Afghanistan.” Despite this, human rights experts have expressed doubt that domestic and foreign stakeholders can achieve sustainable peace given their approach and ultimate goals. According to Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “Longstanding governance failures, a contemptible disregard for civilians by insurgents, and a short-sighted security strategy by the US and other donor countries, has had catastrophic results in Afghanistan […] Momentum for peace talks in 2019 may depend on whether the participants make protecting civilians and human rights a priority.”
While the mere occurrence of peace negotiations signifies movement in the direction of a diplomatic end to the conflict in Afghanistan, these meetings may not be as constructive as they appear. Standoff between the U.S., foreign interests, Afghan officials, and Taliban leaders on the topic of troop withdrawal remains salient. Despite public calls for peace, there is little incentive for cooperation given incomplete information and absolutist demands affecting each party. Given the degree of continued violence, commonly intensified by the Taliban prior to international negotiations, foreign stakeholders are unlikely to begin to consider withdrawing troops. Furthermore, as Gossman alluded to, the current priorities of political officials are not leading to peaceful outcomes, particularly in the realm of women’s rights. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent ousting of the Taliban regime, women have gained freedoms which may be threatened by a re-negotiation of Afghan peace. Only two Afghan women were present at the 47-person meeting in Moscow. Whether the Taliban will support terms outlined to protect women’s rights remains a contentious issue.
According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the Afghan war has seen nearly 150,000 casualties as of November 2018. The war began in 2001 after the Taliban refused to relinquish Osama bin Laden, prompting U.S. and British airstrikes. U.S. and British forces, as well as NATO peacekeeping troops, maintained a growing presence on the ground. The current Kabul government has provided political clout to warlords and strongmen alike after adopting a new constitution in 2004. Peace talks have occurred for several years prior to the Moscow talks and have been unsuccessful in resolving one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. Taliban offensives and insurgents continue to carry out civilian attacks. In the past week (May 24th-30th, 2019), at least 134 pro-government forces and 47 civilians were killed, according to The New York Times weekly Afghan War Casualty Report.
For now, it remains unclear whether meaningful reform will follow the Moscow peace talks. Certainly, it will depend on the Taliban, domestic stakeholders, and foreign powers reaching an agreement on the matters of if, when, and how troops will withdraw from the region. However, in the current political climate, a substantive conclusion seems doubtful. Barriers to a true peace deal remain: the exclusion of the existing Kabul government, continued violence and ambiguous commitment to post-war human rights.