Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Second Phase of Talks Likely To Be Detailed

A breakthrough is cited in the talks ongoing between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatari capital Doha and the talks will enter the second phase, which is likely to be more controversial since reduction in violence, declaration of ceasefire and the government system will be discussed. The three issues, along with preservation of human rights and achievements gained within the last couple of decades, were put at the table since the start of the negotiations. But the two sides have reached an agreement only on the procedural rule so far.
The aforementioned issues will be discussed in detail in the second phase, however, the process is still fragile for three main reasons. First, the agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States in late February is vulnerable since the Taliban are cited to maintain their ties with al-Qaeda, which is a flagrant violation of the agreement. Coming under the US airstrikes in Helmand province, the Taliban have ironically warned against Washington saying it is against the agreement.
Second, there seems to be a lack of national consensus in the country between officials and some political figures. A number of political figures said on multiple occasions that the peace process should be inclusive and all segments of the society needed to be on board. The statements of officials and political figures regarding peace talks are contradictory in some cases. Lack of national consensus is likely to challenge the ongoing talks.
Third, there still seems disagreements between the Taliban leadership and their military commanders and rank and file. The Taliban fighters carry out deadly attacks, but their leadership refuses to claim responsibility. That is, the Taliban fighters are against the peace talks since they will get nothing in return but to be disarmed.
The Taliban’s maintained ties with al-Qaeda will challenge the US-Taliban peace agreement. American diplomats have been pressing them to live up to their end of the bargain. Al-Qaeda fighters are still believed to be embedded with the Taliban, although their leader, Ayman –al-Zawahiri, may now be dead, according to Pakistani media.
The US outgoing President Donald Trump has been unable to fully engage the country’s neighbors in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
Barnett Rubin, a former State Department Official who is now the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University, is cited as saying that the US would benefit from having a strategic vision for the region that was bigger than “no Al-Qaeda”.
“Stop looking at Afghanistan as either ‘war on terror’ or nothing and broaden the aperture to see that it is a country in a region with China, Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan – four nuclear powers,” he is quoted as saying. “They all have a very strong interest in trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Even though they want our troops out, they are worried we are doing it too quickly.”
It is believed that if regional stakeholders were fully engaged in Afghanistan’s peace process, the talks would bear the desired result. Although after the 2014 troop pullout, Afghan soldiers fought the most deadly battlefields against the Taliban, the casualties were extremely high. Many believe that the US troop drawdown is likely to change the balance of power in the battlefields in the favor of the Taliban group, which has so far refused to declare ceasefire. Regional stakeholders also aired their concerns about a hasty troop pullout. Regional countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Russia have asked for a responsible withdrawal of international forces from the country. 
Stephen D. Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “We should maintain our current troop level chiefly for its political values as bargaining leverage in the ongoing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”
If troop pullout is not used as a bargaining chip, the Taliban are likely to continue their escalated militancy and violation of their agreement with Washington. In such a case, peace and stability will remain elusive and the talks will be derailed. With this in mind, the US administration has to stop a hasty withdrawal. That is, if the Taliban seek to play a foul game in the talks, the US needs to use firepower so as to press the Taliban to honor the deal and negotiate with genuine intention. On the contrary, a hasty pullout will be counterproductive and is likely to also embolden the Taliban backers to support and harbor them.
There need to be a responsible withdrawal, consensus between the Afghan political figures and officials as well as agreement between the Taliban leaders and rank and file over the peace talks so that talks do not be derailed.