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Afghan peace talks

Despite relaunch of the annual spring offensive in Afghanistan and the surge in violence that it has unleashed, the ongoing attempts to resolve the Afghan imbroglio via negotiations have not yet been derailed.

This is good news given that a negotiated settlement seems like the only feasible solution to ending the forty years of conflict in Afghanistan. Yet, reaching a conclusive settlement is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

There are several elements to the ongoing negotiation process, each with its own set of challenges. Given the inability of the US-backed Afghan government to defeat the Taliban, several regional players, including Russia, have been trying to woo the Taliban into a political settlement. The US itself has held several talks with the Taliban leadership in Qatar over the past year. Pakistan has also been playing a facilitative role in this process.
However, thus far, the Taliban remain adamant that they do not want to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. On its part, the Afghan government has been upset with Russia, and with the US, for bypassing them and agreeing to negotiate with the Taliban directly.

The Taliban and the US government are nowhere near coming up with a power-sharing formula, given that they are currently wrangling over the sequence of withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, versus securing guarantees from the Taliban that they would not allow their country to be used as a future base for international terrorism.

The US has other concerns as well, such as trying to curb the opium trade and ensuring that the Taliban will be less repressive if they are given a future share in power. The Taliban have also indicated their willingness to be less repressive. In recent months, senior Taliban spokesmen have indicated their willingness to allow girls the right to education, for instance.

While the Taliban remain adamant that they will not negotiate directly with the Afghan government, they did meet a delegation of Afghans in Moscow in February. This delegation was led by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, political opponents of the Afghan government and members of the Afghan diaspora.

Another such talk has been planned between the Taliban and another Afghan delegation for April 19 (today) in Qatar. This second delegation boasts an even larger list of Afghans, including civil society representatives and many women. Senior Afghan government representatives are also a part of this second list of delegates, but they are meant to be participating in their ‘personal’ instead of official capacity (perhaps a face-saving maneuver for both sides).

At the time of writing this article, there was still a lot of uncertainty about whether this second intra-Afghan dialogue will even be held. The Taliban have reportedly poured scorn on the lengthy list of Afghan, saying that they had ‘no plans’ to meet so many people.

More confusion has been created as some of the Afghan government officials who were meant to be participating ‘unofficially’ have decided not to do so. Most prominent amongst these Afghan officials who seem unwilling to attend the April 19 talks is Ghani’s own running mate, Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence and a longtime Taliban critic.

One hopes that other stakeholders, including Pakistan, will be able to help overcome some of the contentions surrounding this second round of intra-Afghan talks. Doing so would go a long way in boosting prospects of agreeing to a framework of peaceful resolution to the Afghan crisis, during the subsequent round of talks scheduled between the US and the Taliban delegations, near the end of this month.

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