The sixth round of US-Taliban talks at Doha, Qatar concluded on May 9 with spokesman for Taliban stating, “The sixth round of talks … ended, with some progress made on the draft agreement prepared in the last round of talks.”Earlier on May 6, the Taliban had stated that the talks were “stalled” on the issue of timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops. “Some progress” is the diplomatic language that has been used over past years at similar bilateral and multilateral discussions with Taliban. The actual outcome indicates little gain because the prime demand of Taliban has always been that they want all foreign troops out of Afghanistan’s territory, albeit this does not included PLA troops disguised as civilians and Pakistani regulars and Mujahid battalions fighting shoulder to shoulder with Taliban.
The Taliban have engaged the US in the current round of US-Taliabn talks because US President Donald Trump announced troop pullout from Afghanistan. But there is no change to what the Taliban have wanted from day one:
• all foreign troops must exit Afghanistan – focus being US-NATO;
• will not lay down arms;
• don’t respect Constitution of Afghanistan, and;
• want Islamic Caliphate with rule of Sharia.
In the earlier round of these talks, the Taliban had also demanded free movement in few provinces of Afghanistan, which had been earlier ruled out by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. But the bottom-line is that no matter how much the US wants to engage Talban, latter want American troops out of Afghanistan – same as China, Russia and Iran.
Taliban has reportedly agreed to not allow Afghanistan to be used for international attacks. The Moscow trilateral statement had also taken “note of Afghan Taliban’s commitment to fight ISIS, cut ties with Al- Qaeda, ETIM and other international terrorist groups, and ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country”. But to believe this would be naïve because thieves may have morals and a code of conduct, but terrorist and militant organizations don’t. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda chief had already announced support to Taliban three years back, factions of Afghan Taliban have been reaching out to ISIS, ISIS is already operating in Afghanistan and there have been instances of ISIS-Al Qaeda collusion in Iraq-Syria.
Most importantly, when Taliban are committing they would “ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country”, what about the Pakistan-based terrorist organizations like the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-i-Mohammed (JeM), and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) operating in Afghanistan in conjunction Taliban since past few years, as reported by the UN Assistance Mission Afghanistan (UNAMA) in its report of July 2016? For that matter, the ISIS or ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) brigade was configured at Peshawar under aegis of Pakistan’s ISI and then pushed west into Nangarghar Province of Afghanistan.
Immediately post the sixth round of US-Taliban talks, Zalmay Khalilzad travelled to India and held consultations with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, NSA, Foreign Secretary and the Indian envoy to Kabul. A statement by the US Embassy at New Delhi, these consultations included the need to preserve gains made since removal of Taliban regime in 2001 and preventing use of Afghanistan by terror groups as a platform for attacks. Also that Khalilzad and his counterparts agreed that Afghan gains of the last 18 years must be preserved and built upon, and Afghanistan’s political future is for Afghans to decide through an inclusive and legitimate process.
Zalmay Khalilzad has said he will continue to consult India as the US-Taliban talks progress further. India has major stakes in the stability of Afghanistan having invested some USD 3 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and involvement in developing that country. Peace in Afghanistan also is important to India’s bridge to Central Asia and beyond through Chabahar Port in Iran being operated by India and the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC). Afghanistan reverting to the pre-2001 Taliban rule will be major setback for Afghanistan and the region, with consequential adverse effect for India.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had suggested in February 2019 that a US-Taliban agreement was within reach and will be finalized by July. But before announcing a withdrawal timeline, the US wants that Taliban put in place security guarantees, a ceasefire and other commitments. However, Taliban insist that US must first announce timeline for troop withdrawal. This then is the catch 22 situation. Taliban is aware that the Obama administration too had announced a troop withdrawal timeline, which wasn’t executed. In fact, US had to induct reinforcements in Afghanistan to beef up its presence because of the deteriorating situation and need to put more pressure on Taliban.
Despite ongoing US-Taliban talks, Taliban has never agreed to a ceasefire. Even as the Fifth round of US-Taliban talks were concluding in March 2019, Taliban launched a major attack on an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Badghis Province, killing 20 ANA soldiers, wounding 10 and capturing 20. Post the recent sixth round of US-Taliban talks, Taliban attacked and stormed the Counterpoint International office in Kabul on May 8, setting off an explosion followed by six hours of gun battle, killing nine members of the US-based aid group and wounding at least 20 civilians. This despite that in March this year, US-Talban had agreed on two key issues, withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Taliban’s pledge to cut ties with Al Qaida and other terrorist outfits.
The above stalemate will likely continue. Right now the Taliban insist on timeline of US troop withdrawal, but as and when the US does commit to, the Taliban response is likely to be: demand advancing the date of final withdrawal; remain non-committal to ceasefire, and; increase terror attacks to mount more pressure on the US – as China, Russia and Iran would want, with Pakistan playing the joker-terrorist in the pack. Meanwhile, Taliban will continue to refuse to engage with the Government of Afghanistan, even as some in the Afghan Opposition are contacting Taliban for individual an party gains. What are Donald Trump’s plans for Iran and how they unfold will also affect Afghanistan and the region. The future of Afghanistan remains ambiguous as before.