What took so long?
The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar on 29 February specified that peace talks among the Afghan parties to the conflict would begin on 10 March. After months of delay, these intra-Afghan talks are finally set to commence, also in Doha, on 12 September.
A number of factors contributed to the postponement, some arising immediately after the U.S.-Taliban agreement was signed. The Afghan government showed reluctance to implement a provision calling for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, for fear of losing domestic standing as well as its negotiating leverage, while the Taliban re-escalated violence across the country in hopes of maintaining theirs. For nearly two months, political gridlock in Kabul complicated efforts to put together a pro-government negotiating team. To clear these hurdles, the U.S. government pressured both sides through constant shuttle diplomacy, sporadic airstrikes on Taliban attacking Afghan government forces and, at one point, threats of drastically decreased funding for Kabul.
Despite their mutual resistance to being rushed, both sides moved under U.S. pressure, notably by agreeing to three-day ceasefires during Eid holidays in May and July and by achieving progress on prisoner releases. As a former Afghan official privy to peace developments noted, for most of the last six months the U.S. seemed to be the only party showing any urgent desire for the talks to begin.
More broadly, the delays reflected the two protagonists’ differing approaches. The Taliban insist on a narrow interpretation of their agreement with the U.S. as well as on strict implementation of the deal’s conditions, as they understand them. For example, the group repeatedly said intra-Afghan talks could not begin until the government had released the particular 5,000 prisoners (of approximately 15,000) it had named, not just any 5,000. For its part, the Afghan government has displayed an inclination to resist aspects of the U.S. approach with which it disagrees – though it subsequently has been obliged to gradually reverse many of its public stances in the face of increasing pressure from Washington. For instance, the Afghan government openly objected to the terms of the prisoner exchange in the U.S.-Taliban agreement the day after it was signed, yet then released batches of several hundred imprisoned Taliban members from one week to the next.
What is the agenda for the first round of talks?
It is largely unclear what will be discussed and in what order, or how the first round will be structured. Sources close to the planning told Crisis Group that the two sides have differing ideas about how to proceed in the opening round: the government’s team appears interested in first laying out a structure and guidelines for the talks, while the Taliban may seek to dive into substantive issues straight away. Observers say the government may again be signalling a desire to slow down the pace of the process, holding out hope that Washington may reconsider its current policy course. In contrast, Crisis Group has learned the Taliban recently prepared talking points on a future distribution of power and could seek to begin discussing these early on, to take advantage of what they perceive to be their stronger negotiating position.
Uncertainty as to the agenda is based in part on the parties’ insistence that the talks begin without a neutral third-party mediator. According to several members of their political office, the Taliban object to an outside mediator because they want negotiations to proceed “with only Afghans in the room”, a demand the Afghan government would find it politically difficult to argue with.
Even without a mediator, the parties could have engaged in pre-negotiations dedicated to agreeing on an agenda for the opening rounds, a practice from which other peace talks have benefitted (such as in El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Colombia and elsewhere) but which both sides have also resisted. At first, the Afghan government appeared to seek to initiate pre-negotiations in April, when working groups from both sides met to discuss technical details of the prisoner exchange. But the Taliban reportedly perceived this as a government attempt to compel them to recognise the government’s legitimacy as their sole negotiating opponent; the group has walked a fine line between agreeing to sit down with a government-appointed negotiating team and continuing to portray the government as merely one of many Afghan parties headed for the table. The Taliban also seemed to worry that the Afghan government would claim talks had begun before the movement had secured the release of 5,000 members, a condition upon which they insisted. Since then, the two sides have made no effort to engage in pre-negotiations, in spite of encouragement from international supporters. As a result, the initial round is likely to be caught up in disputes about agenda and structure.
Who will be in the room?
Both teams, comprised of roughly twenty representatives each, will be supervised by figures who possess rare and valuable experience speaking to their adversaries. Masoom Stanekzai – a confidant of President Ashraf Ghani and former government minister with long involvement in peace efforts – will lead Kabul’s delegation. Earlier this summer, the Taliban announced that Sher Abbas Stanekzai, their negotiation team leader during recent bilateral talks with the U.S. and a former official of their “Islamic Emirate” in the 1990s, would continue to lead their team. But in early September the group named a new lead negotiator, Maulvi Abdul Hakim, one of the movement’s most senior religious clerics and legal minds, who was serving as the “chief justice” of the Taliban’s shadow government court system. Hakim, long a clerical peer of Taliban leader Emir Haibatullah and said to enjoy his personal confidence, does not have diplomatic or formal negotiating experience. However, the Taliban’s deputy emir and chief of the political office in Doha, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is set to continue overseeing negotiations, as he did for the talks leading to the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
A critical difference in the two teams is that in recent months the Taliban have begun rotating out the more junior members of their political office and appointing some of their leadership council’s most senior and respected members in their place – a move that may give the Taliban negotiating team more authority to speak on the movement’s behalf. On the other hand, the Afghan negotiating team consists of more junior or peripheral figures who will represent major political stakeholders. The Afghan government seems to have recognised this imbalance, and has sought to augment its negotiation team’s efforts by deploying its special envoy for peace to Doha, along with an “advance team” of supporting government officials. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, and Foreign Minister Atmar will attend the opening ceremony along with the negotiation team. President Ghani has even selected one of the negotiation team members to become the new state minister for peace – though at the cost of furthering tensions between political camps in Kabul (see below).
Notwithstanding the Taliban’s preference for Afghans alone to be in the room, several diplomats involved in the process believe U.S. representatives will be present at times, as will the Qatari hosts. Under these circumstances, the U.S. will likely wind up serving as de facto facilitator. That is an awkward role for it to play, given that it is an interested party with an outsized role in Afghanistan’s conflict and an evident political interest in pushing for a swift settlement. Historically, mediation of peace talks has been more successful in the presence of a neutral, third-party facilitator or mediator. Outside mediation was discussed and nearly agreed to in earlier stages of U.S.-Taliban talks, but after President Donald Trump abruptly suspended negotiations in September 2019, the Taliban grew resistant to the idea, perhaps out of mistrust. That said, a small group of negotiation experts and diplomats from several key nations and the UN are poised in Doha to provide support to the process from “outside of the room”. The U.S. presence also means a continued prominent role for the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who spearheaded the talks with the Taliban and has personally driven much of the diplomatic pressure to keep the process moving forward since February.
Will the Taliban agree to a lasting ceasefire at the outset of talks?
The Taliban have consistently rejected the Afghan government’s offers to agree to a lasting ceasefire since they partook in an Eid holiday ceasefire in mid-2018. Nearly two years passed after that truce until the group declared another three-day Eid ceasefire in May 2020 – and then only at the urging of the U.S., with the assurance that doing so would speed up the plodding pace of prisoner releases. At the end of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, prisoner releases stalled and violence again rose across the country. By late July, the U.S. found itself pressing both sides to enter another three-day ceasefire on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, in order to reset and jumpstart the process yet again.
Based on their prior resistance, their insistence on a narrow interpretation of the deal with the U.S., and the consistency of their messaging on this point, the Taliban are highly unlikely to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire in the opening round of intra-Afghan negotiations. The U.S.-Taliban agreement states that intra-Afghan talks will include discussion of such a ceasefire but does not commit the Taliban to it.
Once those discussions begin, disagreements are sure to emerge regarding a permanent ceasefire’s start date and modalities, just as they did with regard to the prisoner exchange. The Afghan government will almost certainly seek immediate implementation of a ceasefire even if that means foregoing the monitoring and verification mechanisms that historically increase the sustainability of ceasefires. The Taliban can be expected to drag their heels in this area via any number of proposals, due to the group’s concerns that a ceasefire might sap its cohesion and corrode its leverage. Here again, a neutral mediator for the talks – ideally one with firm U.S. and EU backing but without Washington’s impatience to withdraw – could have been helpful.
After the delays and the renewed fighting in recent months, the atmosphere surrounding intra-Afghan talks clearly would benefit from, at a minimum, a meaningful and lasting reduction in violence. But such a reduction is more likely to be achieved incrementally, with agreements on restricting use of specific tactics or weaponry that each side perceives as particularly harmful to civilians (for instance, airstrikes by the Afghan government and the planting of improvised explosive devices by the Taliban).
Will disagreements in Kabul affect the government’s negotiating team, and if so, how?
President Ghani and his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah reached a compromise in May that temporarily resolved their dispute over 2019’s contentious presidential election. But that has not ended political wrangling in Kabul. The compromise appointed Abdullah to lead national peace efforts but left a number of details unspecified, such as the structure, funding and staff selection for the newly created High Council of National Reconciliation. Given Ghani and Abdullah’s acrimonious history of failing to implement signed agreements, it is little surprise that many of these details are now contested by both camps.
This situation has left the Afghan government’s appointed negotiating team without a fully functional secretariat, while the High Council still only really exists on paper. Abdullah was meant to have the authority to select the new state minister for peace, but Ghani rejected Abdullah’s candidate, appointing his own choice for minister in a presidential decree naming cabinet officials. Another presidential decree selecting members of the High Council was rejected not only by Abdullah, but also by several of the very political figures who were named to the Council– including former President Karzai, who spoke in favour of Abdullah’s authority. President Ghani, Abdullah and Masoom Stanekzai, head of the negotiating team and former chief of the national intelligence service, have all insisted for some time that the negotiators are prepared to engage with the Taliban at any point. But a number of Western officials have voiced concerns about the government team’s ability to present a united front, as well as its technical capacity.
How long will the talks last? Will the U.S. complete its withdrawal before the talks finish?
When the U.S. was exploring the possibility of openly negotiating directly with the Taliban in 2018, Khalilzad told President Ghani that he had six months to make significant progress. Eighteen months, several key U.S. concessions and a four-page agreement later, those negotiations illuminate the potential for intra-Afghan talks to stretch into an even lengthier affair. As compared with the U.S.-Taliban talks, intra-Afghan negotiations will cover a much wider range of issues meant to shape Afghanistan’s entire post-peace order. With such high stakes, limited preparation and disagreement over the agenda and concrete objectives for the talks, and given the two parties’ behaviour over the past six months, it would be highly surprising if talks were to progress speedily through substantive issues to reach an interim, much less a comprehensive, accord.
Whether and to what extent the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will be tied to progress in peace talks is difficult to say. U.S. officials’ recent confirmation that U.S. military force levels in the country will fall from 8,600 to below 5,000 before November suggests that the Trump administration is determined to proceed on its withdrawal trajectory, regardless of diplomatic developments. At the same time, Khalilzad’s continued shuttle diplomacy and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s periodic engagement with both the Afghan government and Taliban suggest a U.S. commitment to diplomacy – if nothing else, to avoid the fallout that might result if a U.S. and NATO withdrawal took place against the backdrop of continued fighting, without the cover of peace talks. The question of whether the U.S. will continue to disengage or sustain its current support for Kabul looms even larger over the process given the forthcoming U.S. presidential election. Uncertainty over what Washington will do may create additional incentives for the parties to bide their time until November. The Afghan government, already seeking to stretch out the timeline, might hope for a policy shift under a new U.S. president or at least take advantage of the extra time a leadership transition might afford. While the Taliban seem to prefer a quicker negotiation process, they also seem determined to avoid appearing like the more eager of the two parties; if the Afghan government continues to stall as it has over the past six months, the Taliban are unlikely to make concessions in order to push the talks forward.
Andrew Watkins, Senior Analyst, Afghanistan.