A year after the United States approved a new policy deploying additional troops in Afghanistan, the situation remains grim. The writ of the national-unity government (NUG) holds mainly in provincial and district capitals. Though US troop presence is still technically in a “training, advice and assistance” role, there are no time constraints for their withdrawal.

Local commanders of the Afghan National Army are given flexibility to cope with new offensives from a resurgent Taliban, who have repeatedly amassed from rural areas, stormed city centers in Kunduz, Farah and Ghazni but have failed to hold on against renewed onslaughts of artillery and air support from international forces. It is by no means certain that long-pending elections to the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People/lower house of parliament), due on October 20, can be smoothly conducted in all parts of the country.

Provisional or temporary ceasefires in February and June indicated war fatigue. The Helmand peace march also reflected this sentiment. However, violence erupted again. Though the Americans decided to talk directly to the Taliban and several rounds of preliminary contacts have occurred in the last 10 months, no breakthroughs are in sight. Both sides seem bogged down in a “talk and fight” stalemate.

Intermittent peace talks

Various reconciliation forays have been in the making. In January 2017, British academics Theo Farrell and Michael Semple advocated in a Royal United Services Institute working paper that the way ahead lay in “insurgent peacemaking,” which involved talking separately to faction commanders of the Taliban through Afghan intermediaries, wherever they were willing. The demise of Mullah Omar was concealed for more than a year. After Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban’s de facto leader, was eliminated in a US drone attack, Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader but could not pull his weight within the Taliban because of tribal rivalries.

Mullah Rahim retained greater clout fighting against the International Security Assistance Force in Helmand. One of Haibatullah’s deputies, Gul Agha was channeling finances to him. Other commanders in the north, such as Mullah Rasool in Farah and Herat and Qari Hekmat in Sarepul, also emerged as contenders for leadership. Some contacts were made during this period through Agha Jan Mohtasem, Syed Tayyeb Agha and some others.

The Doha office of the Afghan Taliban also became active. Haibatullah authorized Sher Abbas Stanekzai, Shahbuddin Delawar, Dr Saleh and Qari Salam Hanafi to respond to feelers from Dr Paulo Cotta Ramusino of the Pugwash International and later, the Americans. From July 2017, Colonel Christopher Kolenda and Robin Raphael, a former US diplomat who worked on South Asia, have been meeting with the Taliban in Doha. They were later joined by Alice Wells, assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

The Taliban also participated in delegation-level visits to Beijing. China has appointed a special envoy on Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, who keeps an eye on developments along with the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, currently Xu Feihong.

The Pakistan factor

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been privy to these contacts. Pakistan is happier keeping the reconciliation initiative confined to the “Quad process,” with only the US, China, Pakistan and the Afghan government involved. It wants to keep India out of any say in the reconciliation process.

In mid-January this year, a new “Istanbul format” of four-party talks was set up between two Taliban factions led respectively by representatives of the Akhundzada and Mullah Rasool factions of the Taliban on one side, and Afghan NUG representatives (National Directorate of Intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai and ex-national security adviser Hanif Atmar) and Hizb-e-Islami’s (Hikmatyar)’s Humayun Jarir on the other. Some Afghan businessmen also reportedly joined as facilitators. Three rounds of talks were apparently held in Istanbul.

In March, the Tashkent Declaration expressed support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” reconciliation process. India supports this position.

In their approach to the talks, the Taliban have sought to gain legitimacy and recognition, more as a tehrik or movement, rather than as a mere political party. They stand for acceptance of a broad-based Islamic government, not necessarily rejecting all aspects of the 2004 constitution. Any changes would need approval of their Muntakhib Shoora (elected council). They discourage any piecemeal approach or outreach to different factions. They oppose dominance of area warlords.

After recent contacts, American interlocutors indicated that they found the Taliban negotiators more serious than before. Apparently, they still press for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces but accept that the Americans are not leaving in a hurry. Demands for eventual US withdrawal from bases in Bagram and Shorabak, Helmand, were voiced. While remaining noncommittal on power-sharing formulas, they have apparently indicated a willingness to swap prisoners. They are keen for the release of Anas Haqqani, scion of the Haqqani network, now under custody of the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Joseph Dunford visited Pakistan recently to meet with new Prime Minister Imran Khan, they brought along Zalmay Khalilzad with them, as their newly appointed special envoy on Afghanistan. As US ambassador to Afghanistan (November 2003-June 2005), Khalilzad was not seen as a friend by Pakistan.

The Americans want the Pakistanis to put more pressure on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table. The same message seems to have been conveyed to Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who followed up his recent UN General Assembly visit with bilateral meetings with high dignitaries of the US administration in Washington. The Pakistanis claim inability to do more, as the Taliban do not listen to or depend on them beyond a point. These meetings do not seem to have broken the impasse.

Some Afghan Wolesi Jirga members recently voiced a demand to review the Bilateral Security Agreement with United States. This idea could have potentially disruptive implications not only on the duration and longevity of US forces’ presence in Afghanistan but also on the legitimacy of the NUG on the eve of Wolesi Jirga polls and of presidential elections next April.