On October 12th, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan met with six Taliban representatives in Qatar’s Doha, according to a statement by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
“Both sides spoke (about) an end to the occupation and a peaceful solution to the Afghan issue … Both sides agreed to continue meeting in the future,” Mujahid said on October 13th.
He also said that the group would continue to have discussions with the Afghan-born diplomat.
An unnamed senior Taliban member, cited by Al Jazeera, said that both sides had tough conditions for peace. “It was an introductory meeting in which an eight-member U.S. delegation held a detailed meeting with members of our political office,” he said. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, who is the head of Taliban’s Qatar office, led the discussions, the source said.
Al Jazeera also cited a different Taliban member who requested anonymity said that “both sides discussed prospects for peace, and the U.S presence in Afghanistan.”
Furthermore, Al Jazeera cited another senior member of the Taliban claimed that Khalilzad had requested the Taliban to declare a ceasefire in Afghanistan for six months, starting before the October 20th elections.
In exchange, the Taliban wants the Afghan government to release fighters from jails across the country and the swift removal of foreign forces fighting alongside Afghan troops.
According to yet another unnamed Taliban source, the US delegation proposed forming different committees to handle the release of prisoners. The source, however, said that neither side agreed to the other’s requests, but they agreed to meet again and find a solution.
As reported by Al Jazeera, Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on October 13th and briefed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about his 10-day tour of four countries and about the meeting with the Taliban representatives.
A statement about Khalilzad’s diplomatic tour released by the U.S. embassy in Kabul did not confirm his meeting with the Taliban.
“The United States shares the aspirations of all Afghans for a peaceful Afghanistan where all Afghans see themselves included. All citizens of Afghanistan must be a part of this reconciliation process,” said Khalilzad, according to the press release.
“The purpose of this entire trip is to talk about the peace and reconciliation progress,” US State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert told a news briefing in Washington. “Any time we’re there on the ground we’re making headway.”
Previously, in July there were reports that Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells met Taliban members in Doha. The meeting was aimed at establishing the grounds for actual peace talks. Neither side confirmed the meeting in July.
The October 12th meeting has so far been confirmed by the Taliban side, the US and Afghanistan governments have not confirmed it.
The Taliban has long demanded direct talks with Americans, instead of coming via Kabul. The Trump administration has assured the Afghan government that they will not be sidelined.
Continued fighting has raised questions about the viability of the US strategy to achieve any kind of victory in the conflict by military means. After 17 years of war, Washington has shown that it is incapable of defeating the Taliban movement. The only choice would either be peace or a large-scale invasion, which would be complicated due to other countries that have an interest in Afghanistan such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India.
Negotiations are also a sharp turn in policy in Afghanistan. The Trump administration and its preceding ones have repeatedly declared the Taliban group a terrorist movement. The US, however, appears to be negotiating with terrorists now.
All of these happen amidst setbacks of the US-backed Afghan government, which are under constant pressure by the Taliban. Following the large attack on Ghazni, as well as the Taliban movement shooting rockets at the presidential palace in Kabul on August 21st. The Taliban continue expanding and even the appearance of ISIS in Afghanistan has not hindered them.
As of October 14th, out of 398 districts, 146 are under Afghan government control, 52 are under Taliban control. The remaining 200 are contested under various amounts of influence by one side or the other.
The reports of negotiations are promising; however it should not be forgotten that the Taliban and US have significant difference in their wishes for the outcome of the 17-year war.
The Taliban is a local conservative nationalist movement and they request the withdrawal of all foreign troops, especially US ones from Afghanistan.
Washington, on the other side, wants to keep the government it backs in power and to keep its logistics and military bases in the country, allowing it to keep and increase its influence in the Central Asian region.
The Taliban has said that there will be no established peace until their demands are fulfilled. The US avoids confirming that any meetings with the Taliban movement took place.