One step forward, two steps backward

The newly-appointed U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently concluded a trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar aimed at setting the stage for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Mr. Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in Qatar in early October, following several statements made by the insurgent group reiterating its interest in direct talks with the U.S.

The Taliban confirmed this meeting later. “The representatives of the [Taliban] identified the presence of foreign forces as the greatest obstacle to true peace and solving problems,” a statement read. In reports that followed, the Taliban indicated that the U.S. envoy agreed to discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan — a demand that has been made frequently by the Taliban as a precondition to hold talks with the Afghan government.

However, the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, a body set up to conduct negotiations, dismissed the Taliban’s claim of withdrawal of forces as propaganda. The U.S. State Department refused to comment on the claim, reiterating the standard position that the peace process is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”.

The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly after most U.S. troops pulled out in 2014. While the remaining foreign forces have largely restricted roles, they have been strategic allies to the Afghan troops in the fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State.

“If the foreign forces leave Afghanistan, the situation will get worse,” predicted Hamed, a 25-year-old Afghan soldier.

“Even before the Americans and NATO arrived, the Taliban were here committing the same atrocities they are doing now. The Taliban doesn’t believe in peace, they fire upon schools, they kill government workers, they have no regard for society,” he pointed out. “But now, the presence of the foreign forces fills them with dread, and has kept them away [from government-controlled areas].”

Positive results

However, Mr. Hamed remains hopeful that the renewed peace talks will yield positive results. He has observed that the fighting in the north of the country, where he is currently based, has become worse. “Things are very bad right now. The soldiers are in a bad situation.”

While there have been many attempts aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the efforts from the Afghan government as well as the U.S. have become more focussedover the past year. In June, during Id, government forces even succeeded in reaching a brief ceasefire with the Taliban

In response, the Taliban has also shown willingness to engage in talks with the Americans. In a second statement, the insurgent group once again repeated its interest in follow-up talks. In a commentary, titled “It’s not too late”, the group said, “The [Taliban] was always of the belief that whatever point of contention the American officials have with Afghanistan, they can present and solve it through dialogue… [The Taliban] welcomes every development that results in ending the occupation and military catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan…”

However, after taking one step forward, the Taliban is taking two steps back. Despite its positive show of faith, the group not only continues brazen attacks across the country — last week, it attacked the Kandahar Governor’s office killing the province’s police chief — but also boycotted Saturday’s parliamentary elections. So it remains unclear what the Taliban’s actual strategy is.

Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul

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