Taliban leaders are reportedly putting together a team to negotiate with the United States and signaling which concessions they will require to make such talks possible, prominently including a release of Taliban prisoners taken during the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
Reuters on Tuesday quoted “two officials involved with the process” who said Taliban leaders are meeting to select a three- or four-man delegation to meet with American officials. They would then schedule a follow-up meeting to conduct more serious negotiations provided the first meeting goes well and the U.S. demonstrates good faith by releasing Taliban prisoners.
“This meeting will determine the future talks and we would see if the U.S. is serious and sincere in negotiation. We would hand over a list of prisoners languishing in jails across Afghanistan. If they set free our prisoners then we would meet again for another great cause,” one of the “officials,” clearly a Taliban member from the tone of his comments, told Reuters.
The first serious diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Taliban officials occurred in Doha, Qatar, a little over a month ago. Reuters’ sources indicated the head of the Taliban’s office in Qatar would once again take point on negotiations with the United States, although the current chief official is only an interim appointee and will be replaced by a permanent representative.
The American side of negotiations would most likely be headed up by Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, who was named President Donald Trump’s special adviser for Afghanistan last week. Khalilzad is an Afghan-American noted for his skill at dealing with tribal factions.
The White House began seeking direct talks with the Taliban in July as part of a strategic shift intended to conclude the war in Afghanistan. Before that, the U.S. position was that Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government in Kabul needed to take the lead on negotiations. The Taliban adamantly refuses to bargain with Kabul because it deems the government a wholly illegitimate puppet of the United States.
The Taliban has been described as “willing, but not desperate” for negotiations. In this analysis, military pressure from the U.S. combined with diplomatic pressure from Afghanistan’s neighbors and Islamic religious leaders has convinced the Taliban to “evolve” and consider compromises to achieve its two core objectives, returning to power in Afghanistan and evicting foreign troops.
A significant number of Taliban movers and shakers has decided these objectives cannot be secured by brute force but can be largely won through negotiations with a war-weary Washington and nervous Kabul.
Instead of demanding the immediate exodus of all American troops, the Taliban will ask for a firm exit “timetable” and possibly accept the presence of small foreign units to secure Kabul and fight the Islamic State, which is also a Taliban objective.
Instead of overthrowing and executing the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban might seek the orderly dissolution of his government and the installation of “caretaker” officials until a new constitution is drafted and Taliban seats are secured at the table of power in Kabul.
The Taliban might have decided the time is right for peace talks because Afghanistan will hold a presidential election in April 2019 and it would become much more difficult to rewrite the constitution and install a “caretaker” government after the election. Much of the Taliban’s recent military action could be seen as an effort to shake the Afghan people’s faith in the Ghani government so profoundly that they will not resist Taliban demands to replace it.
These negotiations face four major obstacles: it would take years to reach a settlement, and bloodshed in Afghanistan would continue all the while; the U.S. will resist Taliban leaders inserting themselves into civilian government, and especially into Afghanistan’s military apparatus; the Taliban will insist on writing their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law into the constitution, outraging human rights advocates and Afghans who do not wish to live under Islamist domination; and there is little guarantee the Taliban will not use violence to seize the rest of the loaf after half a loaf is given, especially if its fighters wind up sprinkled through the Afghan military.