A delegation of political leaders from the U.S., Taliban, and Afghan government convened in Doha, Qatar beginning 29 June for a seventh round of peace talks aimed at ending the nearly two decade-long conflict in Afghanistan. The meeting comes at a time when violence continues to ravage Afghan communities. U.S. and Taliban negotiators built on a draft agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, implement a cease-fire, reach Taliban guarantees against terrorism, and commence peace talks. Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy leading the American delegation, is an Afghan-born special diplomat. In previous talks (including one in Moscow several weeks prior), the Afghan government has been noticeably absent given Taliban refusal to negotiate with a government it believes is a “puppet of the west.” Afghan government delegates were present at the Qatar peace talks but were unable to attend as official government representatives after Taliban insistence they only join in their personal – not official – capacity. Mr. Khalilzad hopes a peace deal can be drawn before Afghan elections in September.
Mr. Khalilzad has said that “all sides want rapid progress” but the pace of the negotiations is not “sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people are dying.” Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Reuters, “Once the timetable for foreign force withdrawal is announced, then talks will automatically enter the next stage. We don’t need to wait for the completion of the withdrawal, both withdrawal and talks can move forward simultaneously.” Whether cease-fire and intra-Afghan talks are incorporated into the negotiations remains to be seen. “A ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks will not be discussed during the seventh round,” an unidentified Taliban source told Reuters.
The Taliban has refused to meet with Afghan government officials, including those in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, until it reaches an agreement with the U.S. . The Taliban views the U.S. as the final arbiter on troop withdrawal, one of its most salient demands. President Ashraf Ghani has met on separate occasions with Mr. Khalilzad. There are concerns among many Afghan government officials that withdrawal of foreign forces will lead to unrest as government forces are left to enforce the terms of the agreement. Furthermore, violence tends to increase as peace talks begin, as both sides seek to establish leverage before negotiations.
There are approximately 14,000 United States troops in Afghanistan either training Afghan security forces or conducting counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda. International troops, who number approximately 8,500, are also assisting Afghan troops. There were at least 3,804 civilian casualties in the past year, according to the United Nations; for the first time, more civilians were killed by American and Afghan government forces than insurgents (including the Taliban). Overall, however, insurgents are responsible for more civilian casualties, deaths, and injuries. The March draft agreement between the Taliban and U.S. officials included withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for the Taliban’s commitment to fight Islamic State loyalists and cut ties with al Quaeda and other insurgent groups.
While the Qatar peace talks are an important, and seemingly promising, step in the direction of peace, there remains great uncertainty given the deliberate exclusion of current government officials in their official capacity. As elections approach, a peace negotiation remains vulnerable at the hands of insurgents. While troop withdrawal, a cease-fire, and Taliban commitments to preventing terrorism bode well for decreases in casualty counts, the omission of intra-Afghan dialogue is of deep concern. If the U.S. can advocate a reasonable approach to including Ghani’s administration in negotiations, there may be a greater chance of post-election peace. Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan, has praised the latest rounds of peace talks, adding that Pakistan is making a “serious and sincere effort” to further the Afghan peace process. “We also believe that without there being a comprehensive intra-Afghan dialogue we will not have sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”