As the direct peace talks between the US and Afghan Taliban move along – the sixth round of talks took place in Doha. Meanwhile questions are being raised regarding the prospects of success.
Any negotiations have to consider the positions of various stakeholders. More importantly, first the stakeholders have to agree to talk and then continue the process until a reasonable accommodation has been reached. Then there are spoilers. In this context how can one evaluate the on-going talks keeping the perspectives of various parties in mind?
There are three main interlocutors to these talks: Afghan Taliban, the Afghan Government, and the US – leading an alliance of foreign troops in Afghanistan, while Pakistan is facilitating.
For US and Afghan Taliban to hold direct talks was a first step that indicated the willingness of the both interlocutors to engage. The US and Afghan Taliban have also held direct talks in the past, but they have been subject specific. For example, when US and Taliban negotiated on the release of POWs, such as recently on the fate of US Army soldier Bowe Bergdhal.
The US has now decided to take a holistic approach to talks with the Taliban. According to Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, there will be no agreement until everything is agreed on. The primary focus areas include a complete ceasefire, foreign troops withdrawal, counter-terrorism assurances, and intra Afghan dialogue. However the sequencing of what comes first is proving to be challenging.
On the other hand, the main demand of Afghan Taliban had been to hold direct talks with the US and complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
According to media reports, US wants an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire before it makes a decision on the shape of troops withdrawal. And Afghan Taliban would not offer a ceasefire until it has a decision on the departure of foreign troops, and agreement on the set up of future Afghan government. The intra-Afghan dialogue appears to be the last thing on the list. That does not mean contacts between the Taliban and other Afghan leaders and representatives are not taking place.
If US and Afghan Taliban talks were to succeed, Ashraf Ghani’s government, which is backed by India, a strategic US ally, has most to loose. Especially when the intra-Afghan dialogue has not fully taken off. From the Indian perspective, the success of Afghan peace process would mean Pakistan can fully focus towards it. Thus Pakistan-India détente is an essential prerequisite.
To demonstrate the relevance of his government and to counter the sentiment of being left out, President Ashraf Ghani convened the Loya Jirga on April 29 and also demanded a ceasefire. However, prominent leaders did not attend, which amongst others included CEO Abdullah Abdullah, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and Hamid Karzai.
Then there are the secondary stakeholders of Afghan peace talks, which involve Iran, Russia, and China. In the face of unilateral US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) last year and reimposition of sanctions, on May 8 Iran decided to incrementally withdraw from the agreement too, unless the other signatories (UK, France, Germany, China and Russia) ease restrictions placed on its banking and oil sectors in 60 days.
These developments, including any military escalation, are bound to complicate the Afghan peace process. China and Russia are cooperating on the Afghan peace process, and a number of related meetings have taken place in Russia. However, China and Russia are also close to Iran, with China being the largest crude oil customer for Iran, and India the second. Iran is also a vital pillar of Russian Middle East strategy, to include Syria.