New Delhi: India was among the handful of countries briefed by US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad on Tuesday on the outcome of the six consecutive days of intensive talks with Taliban. While both the US and Taliban have claimed “significant progress” towards a draft framework for a peace deal, there is still no clear path towards direct intra-Afghan talks.
Washington’s chief negotiator Khalilzad has been in Kabul since Sunday for a series of briefings after marathon six-day talks with a Taliban delegation in the Qatari capital.
The length of the talks raised expectations of a breakthrough, with expectations stoked by similar optimistic assessment from both the Taliban and US officials.
Khalilzad tweeted on January 26 that there was “significant progress”. The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid added that progress had been made on the “withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and other vital issues”. Pakistan foreign minister S.M. Qureshi termed it as a “major diplomatic victory”.
Straight from Doha, Khalilzad first briefed Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on Sunday night.
A statement was issued by the Afghan president’s office on Monday morning, followed by a televised address later in the day. While Ghani welcomed the talks, he also walked a more cautious line, referring to historical failures in modern Afghan history.
On Monday, Khalilzad had a busy schedule discussing the Taliban talks with the High Peace Council chairman Karim Khalili and UN secretary general’s special representative on Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto.
The Afghan-origin US diplomat, who incidentally shares his alma mater with Ghani, also faced Afghan and international media to propagate a sense of optimism – a sentiment which has been lacking in the last nine years of US-Taliban talks.
He also met with a bevy of ambassadors of “interested countries” to brief them about the latest talks. “No one has a monopoly on the diplomacy of peace and all have contributions to make,” tweeted Khalilzad.
India was represented at Khalilzad’s briefing for foreign diplomats by deputy chief of mission in Kabul, Abhishek Singh.
The next round of talks will be held in February, the Qatar government said. The Taliban delegation may be led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released in 2018 after eight years in Pakistani custody.
No response from New Delhi
There has been no response from New Delhi to the cheerful pronouncements from US government officials since Saturday. Indian government sources previously stated there was a “lack of clarity” about the outline of the conclusions from the first phase of the US-Afghan talks which checked India from making a statement about the talks.
Khalilzad told Afghan journalists that there was “progress on vital issues”, as both sides had come to “agreements in principle on a couple of very important issues”.
He noted that there was a “still a lot more work to be done”, but “I believe for the first time I can say that we have made significant progress”.
In an interview to the New York Times, Khalilzad said that the US and Taliban have in principle agreed to a “draft of the framework” that will have to be “fleshed out” before it becomes an agreement.
“The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals,” he said.
While an unnamed Taliban official confirmed the framework deal, he apparently told the Times that “working groups” would iron out details on the timeline of withdrawal of foreign troops.
Earlier, Reuters, citing “Taliban sources”, reported that the draft deal stipulated that all foreign troops would pull out within 18 months of signing a peace pact. This was later denied by the insurgent group.
The withdrawal of foreign troops has been the Taliban’s main demand. The group so far refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government.
“The policy of the Islamic Emirate during talks was very clear – until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible,” said Taliban spokesperson on the six-day Doha talks.
Ghani had pointed out that foreign troops were staying in Afghanistan only out of necessity.
The NATO-led Operation Resolute Support Mission has around 16,200 soldiers, which include 8,500 US troops. Besides, US has another 5,500 as part of its combat operations.
Former Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, who led the UN mission to Afghanistan, posted on Twitter that a systematic withdrawal of foreign troops required complex planning and verification.
US-Taliban talks created expectations for breakthrough announcement. My take after 11 years at NATO: Withdrawal of forces more complex than most believe. Much work needed, first design and plan and then implement. Broad military expertise needed to be sure deadlines can be met.
— Kai Eide (@kai_eide) January 28, 2019
American officials reiterated that the withdrawal issue could only be decided as part of a ‘package deal’ which included direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul, as well as a, long-term ceasefire.
“I have encouraged the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. It is our policy to get to intra-Afghan talks,” Khalilzad said on Monday.
He asserted that it was for “Afghans to find a solution to this stalemate on intra-Afghan dialogue”.
The Taliban have steadfastly refused to sit across the table with Afghan government officials, claiming that Kabul was just a ‘puppet’ whose string was being pulled by Washington.
Taliban officials did not mention the specific demand for direct talks with Afghan government – or of a ceasefire – in their public statements.
However, a senior American official told the Times that Taliban had sought time to confer with their leadership on these topics.
In his televised speech, Ghani reiterated his call to the Taliban to start talks with the Afghan government.
“I call on the Taliban to… show their Afghan will, and accept Afghans’ demand for peace, and enter serious talks with the Afghan government,” he said.
Khalilzad had also called on the head of the High Peace Council, which is tasked with leading the reconciliation process on behalf of the Afghan government.
Asked if there is more cause for optimism regarding direct talks, HPC spokesperson Sayed Ihsan Taheri told The Wire, “For sure, any coordinated step taken to ease the peace process is vital at this sensitive time”.
He asserted that all the initiatives taken by different countries for outreach towards Talban could have only one aim. “The main reason everyone is facilitating and assisting the peace process is for kicking off the intra Afghan talks between both the government and Taliban where Afghanistan’s future stability and Peace will be decided,” said Taheri.
When another Afghan government official was asked to explain the importance of the latest round of US-Taliban talks, he admitted that progress was difficult to measure. “(But) it was “significant” because a discussion opened, and there is high chance of a follow up meeting,” he said.
India has, so far, followed cues from the Afghan government to shape its approach towards the peace process. With Kabul insisting that the only meaningful talks has to be between the two Afghan sides, New Delhi has always batted for an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.
India has tried to retain a seat at the table of any regional initiative for the Afghan peace process – even when the Taliban were in the same room.
But, the lack of details on the US-Taliban talks has certainly caused trepidation in New Delhi from venturing to provide a public response. The lingering perception remains that the US’s accelerated moves in the last few months to expedite the talks may not be entirely in India’s interest, with Washington seemingly fixated on finding an exit strategy.
Agreeing that the Americans were in a “terrible rush”, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad, however, proposed that a Taliban-dominated Afghan government may not be as inimical to Indian interests as presumed, since innate Afghan nationalism would inevitably lead to friction between Kabul and Islamabad. It would also dim the attention that Pakistan gets from the west, he stated.
“A handover to the Taliban in Afghanistan should be more worrisome to Pakistan than to India in the medium to long term. Less attention by the US to Afghanistan will mean less attention to Pakistan as well,” Prasad told The Wire.
Ghani’s references to history
The difficulty in navigating a path towards intra-Afghan talks, without any major concession from the Taliban, was demonstrated by Ghani’s restrained reception. “I want peace, but with prudence,” he stated.
Asserting that only Afghans can hold the reins of peace in their hands, Ghani also specifically cited the fate of former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah. “We insist on measures, because we are aware of the experience of Dr. Najib. We all know how he was deceived. The UN guaranteed him peace, but it ended up with a disaster,” he said.
Najibullah, the Soviet-backed president left office in 1992 as per an agreement, but his departure led to four years of civil war among Mujahideen factions. He was finally killed after the Taliban swept into Kabul and abducted him from the UN compound in 1996.
Going further back, Ghani spoke of the reign of Daud Khan, who was the first to declare himself as the Afghan president and was assassinated in 1978. “The mistake which was committed during Daud Khan’s rule should not get repeated, the mistake was that the then government was not aware of the region’s policy and this resulted in coup,” he said.
Last November, Khalilzad said that he expected to reach a peace deal with the Taliban before the presidential elections, which were earlier scheduled for April.
But, during a trip to Delhi this month, Afghan national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib dismissed Khalilzad’s timeline. “It is difficult to put deadlines on peace,” he said.
On Monday, Khalilzad restated that the US was “in a hurry”, but only for the “sake of the Afghan people”.
There have been mixed reactions within Afghanistan about a ‘breakthrough’ as touted by Khalilzad and the Taliban. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai led the chorus that welcomed the “progress” in the talks, but there were also wariness among others due to the lack of concrete information about the talks and the White House’s visible urgency to leave Afghanistan.
So rarely in the history of peace talks has so little detail about substance has generated so much enthusiasm about outcomes.
— A. Shuja (@AhmadShuja) January 27, 2019
Khalilzad’s dash towards a peace deal with the Taliban led a former US ambassador to Afghanistan to draw an analogy of the US’S withdrawal from Vietnam. “I can’t see this as anything more than an effort to put lipstick on what will be a U.S. withdrawal,” he told the New York Times.