Back from a two week break in the USA on 02 Jun 2019, Mr Zalmay Khalilzad is preparing for the seventh round of talks in Jun at Doha. His preparatory work starts off with a visit to Pakistan and other countries which can help in the peace process. Mr Khalidzad tweeted about the Taliban Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akundzada’s annual Eid statement which he welcomed for its content that the peace talks would continue, and criticised for its bombastic tone which he said was “unnecessary” as it suggested that the US seeks violence. He said that it was necessary for peace that both sides “find ways to work together to reduce or to immediately end the violence, as we continue negotiations to end the war”.
In his message Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada pledged to continue fighting until the group’s objectives were reached. He stated that “”No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of Jihad or forget our 40-year of sacrifices before reaching our objectives,” adding that the Taliban aimed for “an end to the occupation and establishment of an Islamic system”.
Last year the Taliban had accepted a three-day ceasefire over Eid. This year the Afghan President Mr Ashraf Ghani had proposed a ceasefire at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which the Taliban rejected. Clearly, they are far stronger this year than the last year or deduce that a ceasefire proposed by Mr Ashraf Ghani and accepted by them gets greater goodwill of the people for Mr Ghani.
So where are the peace talks headed? Mr Khalidzad must have come back with some directions on the way forward. The May 28, 2019 Afghan peace talks at Moscow three months after the last one in Feb 2019 has seen a perceptible change in the fact that a representative of the Afghan government high peace council was present at the talks.
After this second meeting at Moscow the initiative appears to be more with Russia at the international level and more with non-official Afghan Pashtun leaders like Karzai who attended the event in a prominent capacity. While a member of the Afghan High Peace Council was present at the talks, the initiative was clearly with the Taliban and other prominent Afghan politicians than with anyone else. This successfully undermines the legitimacy of the US supported Ashraf Ghani government and weakens his bid for the President in the now September scheduled elections. Most Afghans see in the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue at Moscow a means of strengthening the Taliban position and that of powerful regional warlords and politicians like Atta Mohammad Noor and Hanif Atmar who also attended the talks, while side-lining the legitimate government. Their aim is clearly to improve their own political prospects in any post-war dispensation.
The focus during the peace talks with Khalilzad at Doha and the talks at Moscow has been on Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar the leader of the Taliban delegation and Sheikh Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai the Taliban spokesperson, mission head in Doha and No. 2 in the talks. However, there are others in the talks who remain out of media glare but will be the hard-line influence on the talks with the US. These are Mohammad Fazl and Khairullah Kharkhwa and three others. These are the extremely hardline members of the Taliban often referred to as the “Gang of Five” or the “Gitmo Five”. They had been imprisoned at Guantanamo by the US without any charges—being deemed too dangerous to be released. Unfortunately, they had to be released in exchange for the US soldier Sargent Bowe Bergdahl, whose release was a political issue for the US administration. He had been held for five years by the Taliban (in Pakistan!!) and the release was justified in the name of negotiating a peace deal in Afghanistan. Some believe that the Gitmo five will aid the peace talks. However, it is more likely that they will be hardliners advising their more prominent representatives. Time will tell whether the US will rue their release as they derail the talks, in the manner that India rues the release of Maulana Mazoor Azhar in Dec 1999 as a consequence of the hostage exchange in the Kandahar hijack.