By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Taliban, U.S. fail to find common ground

March 13, 2019

TEHRAN - The marathon fifth round of negotiations between the U.S. and Afghan Taliban officials in Doha, which lasted 16 long days, ended on Tuesday without any breakthrough.

Even though the two sides claimed to have made ‘progress’, it was not immediately clear what they agreed on. According to reliable sources, they failed to build consensus on ceasefire, intra-Afghan talks and terrorism, while the ‘agreement’ over withdrawal of foreign forces lacks clarity.

During 16 days of ‘negotiations’, the two sides forcefully raised their demands, weighed pros and cons of issues under discussion, took multiple breaks, consulted their respective leaderships, and eventually failed to find a common ground.

The two sides have met many times over the past many months, in different countries, and each time agreeing to disagree. Many observers see these talks as an exercise in futility since the people of Afghanistan have no real representation in it.

The democratically-elected government in Kabul headed by President Ashraf Ghani has been completely sidelined in these negotiations, which is evident from the heated statements issued by the President and his aides in recent months.

They maintain that the direct negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban, bypassing the government in Kabul, give legitimacy to the insurgent group and undermine the Ghani-led government.

It is also believed that President Ghani and U.S. envoy in these negotiations and the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Zalmai Khalilzad don’t see eye to eye. The relationship between the two university friends has fallen apart since the direct ‘negotiations’ between the U.S. and Taliban started.

According to reports, in the latest round of ‘negotiations’ in Doha, the two sides held extensive deliberations on a range of issues, especially the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban delegation led by Sher Abbas Stanikzai pitched it as their central demand.

Following the talks, Khalilzad took to Twitter to bombastically claim that the conditions for peace had “improved” and they had made “real strides”.

He said the two sides had “agreed in draft” on counter-terrorism assurances and troop withdrawal, but failed to find a common ground on intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire.

Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also issued a statement saying that extensive talks were held on “two previously agreed-upon issues”.

“Those two issues were the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing anyone from harming others from Afghan soil,” he said in a statement.

He asserted that no agreement was reached between the two sides regarding ceasefire and direct talks with the government in Kabul.

So, as it appears, there has still been no agreement on ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks. The timing and procedure of the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan is also ambiguous, making the whole exercise futile and fruitless.

Observers in the war-ravaged country believe there can be no headway in ‘peace parleys’ unless the insurgent group accepts the condition of ceasefire and engages in direct talks with the Afghan government. The two sides have failed to agree on both these conditions.

Top Afghan government officials have overtly and covertly denounced the talks between the two parties that have been chiefly responsible for wreaking havoc in the country, while sidelining the real stakeholders – the government and people of Afghanistan.  

Afghanistan’s chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah addressing a meeting of the council of ministers in Kabul on Tuesday said Afghans have “concerns” about “unknown aspects” of U.S.-Taliban negotiations.

“We all have a responsibility to defend the entirety of the political system in Afghanistan. Elections are the sole constitutional mechanism to determine the future government,” he asserted, in reference to reports that the U.S. government might offer the insurgent group role in future Afghan government.

Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani in a meeting with his German counterpart Heiko Maas in Kabul on Monday maintained that the only way to achieve peace in Afghanistan was to start “face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban”.

Questioning the credibility of ongoing Taliban-U.S. talks, Rabbani said that any process where the government and the people of Afghanistan have no role “will not be acceptable”.

Commenting on the so-called ‘agreement’ between the two sides over the withdrawal of foreign forces, Afghan civil society activist Samira Hamidi asked withdrawal at “what conditions and guarantees”?

“Can United States assure Afghans, who still remember the failed deals, agreements and civil war that the country will not turn to a battle field,” she tweeted.

Wazhma Frogh, a civil society activist, said this process is dangerous for the people of Afghanistan.

“When their priorities are not part of any outside-led process, their voices & concerns missing, a small insurgent group gets to decide the shape of Afghan society,” she tweeted, criticizing the ongoing ‘negotiations’,” she tweeted.

Hamdullah Mohib, President Ghani’s national security advisor (NSA), said peace is imperative and needed urgently, but should not be at any cost.

“The Constitution must be respected, as well as the democratic state and elected government it constitutes. The process must be inclusive and representative of the new Afghanistan, not a deal made between elites,” he said in his speech at UN Security Council (UNSC).

The U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began following the invasion of the country in 2001, has now stretched into its 18th year with no results and no end in sight. According to UN reports, civilian casualties have touched a new high in recent years.

Commenting on the failure of U.S. in Afghanistan, a report in The Intercept said the ongoing talks offer a “serious reality check about the outcome of 18 years of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan”.

“For many observers, the negotiations register as a defeat — recognition that the Taliban has not only survived, but is likely to play an integral role in Afghanistan’s future,” said the report by Bilal Sarwari and Murtaza Hussain.

That is essentially the legacy of U.S. in Afghanistan – 18 years of war, thousands of civilian casualties, destruction of the country, exploitation of resources, and still no signs of madness coming to a halt.

Worse still, the group Americans claimed to fight all these 18 years might soon regain power, courtesy the failed strategy of U.S. in Afghanistan.

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