Afghan peace talks that began in Doha on September 12 are a “historic opportunity” that could bring a close to four decades of conflict in the country and end America’s longest war, said the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation on Thursday. The ongoing talks are the “heart of the Afghan peace process,” said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “It's important to be fully aware of the significance of this moment, and to recognize its historic relevance.” With a note of a cautious optimism, he said there is hope but still a long road ahead, with many thorny issues to be negotiated.

Zalmay Khalilzad at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 28, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Zalmay Khalilzad at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 28, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

For the Afghan people, “the cost of not moving forward” is too high, he said. After decades of bearing the brunt of violence and conflict, they are “yearning for peace and they are expressing it in many ways.”

The intra-Afghan negotiations represent a major milestone in the country’s four decades of conflict: the first time the parties have engaged in direct, official peace talks. “This key step puts agency with the Afghans, which is the only way for [the peace process] to succeed,” Khalilzad said in an online event hosted by USIP. But, after two weeks, the two sides are still debating the basic rules and procedures for the talks. More difficult negotiations on substantive issues—like the very nature of a future political system, women’s rights, and how or if to integrate Taliban fighters into state security forces—remain to be tackled.

How We Got Here

“Based on the assumption that there is no viable path to military victory,” Khalilzad said the U.S. sought to engage both the Taliban and the Afghan government in parallel. It took a year and a half of talks for the U.S.-Taliban deal to be inked in late February of this year. The agreement and the direct Afghan talks “have opened the door to the two sides sitting together to correct history,” said Khalilzad, referring to the failure by Afghan parties to seize the opportunity to build peace after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in the late 1980s. That missed chance for peace “weighs on [Afghan] leaders today,” he said.

The U.S.-Taliban deal stipulated the withdrawal of U.S. troops in return for Taliban guarantees that it would not harbor transnational terrorist groups, like al-Qaida or ISIS. It also committed the Taliban to begin intra-Afghan talks with the Kabul government by March 10—an important component as the militant group refused for years to directly negotiate with the Afghan government, which it considers illegitimate.

But it took six more months for those talks to start. Another component of the U.S.-Taliban deal covered the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taliban, which was supposed to take place by March 10. Instead, disagreements between the two sides drew this process out until September, when the last batch of Taliban prisoners were released, finally paving the way for direct talks.

All of that was just a “prologue to the start of the book that the two sides … must write,” he said.

Are the Taliban Serious?

Many critics of the current process believe the Taliban are simply using the negotiations as a diversionary tactic, hoping to bide time until the U.S. withdraws and then seize power, noted USIP Board Chair and former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, who moderated the discussion. For Khalilzad, the group has demonstrated that it is serious about the talks, and views peace as in its self-interest.

The Taliban negotiating team is comprised of some of their most senior members, including their top cleric and high-ranking figures within the group from military, diplomatic, and religious sectors. He also said that the Taliban learned a lesson from its brief period of rule in the 1990s: To be accepted by the international community, Afghanistan must have inclusive governance. This is all the more critical today, as the Taliban recognizes no matter who governs Afghanistan, the country desperately needs international aid.

Khalilzad said that the Taliban had adhered to its commitments made in the U.S.-Taliban deal, including not killing any U.S. forces this year and not attacking major cities. Another component of the deal called on the Taliban to sever ties with groups like al-Qaida. “With regard to terrorism and al-Qaida, what I can say is the Talibs have taken some steps, based on the commitment they have made, positive steps, but they have some distance still to go,” he said during congressional testimony on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, violence in Afghanistan has risen to unacceptable levels, he told the House of Representatives Oversight Committee. At least 57 Afghan security forces were killed in clashes with Taliban fighters across Afghanistan on Sunday night—the most violent day since talks began. Khalilzad said this “decreases confidence in the peace process,” adding the Taliban would “pay the price” with the Afghan people if they don’t reduce violence levels.

“We know that a reduction in violence is possible,” said Khalilzad, alluding to the two Eid cease-fires that held this year. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Taliban see violence as a key leverage point in the negotiations and are thus unlikely to agree to a comprehensive cease-fire early in the process. The Afghan government side holds a wholly different view. “From our point of view, of course, the cease-fire is the most important thing,” Fatima Gailani, a member of Afghanistan’s peace negotiating team, told NBC News. “This was the request of the people of Afghanistan.”

What’s at Stake for Afghans—Especially Afghan Women

Taliban and government negotiators will have to bridge the vastly disparate views each side has on a future, post-conflict political system. The Afghan government aims to retain “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a sovereign, democratic, and united republic,” as President Ghani told a USIP audience this summer. On the other hand, the Taliban’s view is that Afghanistan should be an Islamic emirate with the Afghan people owing their loyalty to an Islamic government.

A core issue for the United States and international community is closely associated with this debate. Many are concerned that Afghan women’s rights could be a casualty of a political settlement. There are very real fears of a return to the Taliban’s draconian rule, which was especially harsh for women. “A settlement must recognize and honor the sacrifices that Afghan women have made,” wrote USIP’s Belquis Ahmadi after the talks started.

Khalilzad spoke at length of the United States’ commitment to protecting the gains Afghan women have made and the centrality of their rights for a peaceful Afghanistan:

“We will work with our international partners to continue to press on the rights of women, and of religious and ethnic minorities. ... While the ultimate political settlement is one for the Afghans themselves to decide, the United States and the international community are deeply committed to human rights and women's rights. The Afghans must negotiate a solution that suits their history and their culture. But we have made it clear we expect the women of Afghanistan to have their voices heard … The international community expects the same.”

Despite repeated attempts to allay these fears, many remain wary over the future of Afghan women’s place in society. The fact that only four of the 25 Afghan government negotiators are women furthered those concerns. (None of the Taliban’s 25 negotiators are women.) Still, Khalilzad said that America’s “encounter with Afghanistan … has [led to] an enduring transformation on so many levels,” leading, in part, to women’s direct participation in the talks.

America’s Longest War

Intra-Afghan talks started a day after the 19-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and represent the most responsible avenue for the United States to extricate from its longest war. Washington is set to reduce troop levels to 4,500 by November and withdrawal all forces by May 2021, as part of the U.S.-Taliban deal. Khalilzad reiterated on several occasions that this withdrawal plan is based on the condition that the Taliban sever ties with transnational terrorist groups. “Being in Afghanistan militarily is not an end itself,” but Washington must be assured there will be “no terrorist threat against the United States on the territory of Afghanistan,” said Khalilzad.

In the end, Khalilzad said the United States believes that a stable Afghanistan at peace at home and with its neighbors is not just an Afghan priority, but in the interest of the United States, the region, and the international community.

“We could have withdrawn, we didn't need anyone's permission to leave if that's all what we wanted to do,” he said in his closing remarks. “But the purpose of our diplomacy has been—and the reason for making that conditional—has been to leave a good legacy behind to help Afghans.”

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