US representatives along with delegates from China, Russia, and Pakistan resumed talks in Beijing on July 11 and 12 to discuss the peace process in Afghanistan. This comes on the heels of the first ever intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which took place on July 8 and 9 in Doha. Although these back-to-back talks mark a historic moment in the United States’ 18 year long engagement in Afghanistan and may possibly signify a de-escalation of the war, the unrelenting violence in Afghanistan among other things continues to shroud the future of the country in uncertainty.
The intra-Afghan talks reflect a stark change in the political atmosphere of Afghanistan. The talks mark the first time that the Taliban has ever met with the western recognized government, and although the meeting was only in a “personal capacity,” the very fact that it took place speaks to the weariness of fighters on both sides. Abdul Matin Bek, a member of the Afghan cabinent, has experienced firsthand the cost of war with the death of his father in a 2011 suicide bombing. Acknowledging that “It is not easy for me to sit across from people who have killed my father,” he heaving emphasized that “we have to end this.” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban delegation, expressed similar sentiments stating that “the pain from all sides, whether it is the night raids or the bombings, that is why we are here.”
At the conclusion of the talks, members of the Afghan government and Taliban delegations issued a joint “roadmap to peace.” Although still unclear, this so-called “roadmap” likely involves the withdrawal of a majority of US troops on the condition that the Taliban surrenders, acknowledges the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and commits to never using Afghanistan to provide safety for international terror groups, specifically al-Qaida.
The week before the talks, the US and the Taliban met separately to discuss a ceasefire. During this meeting, hailed as “the most productive session” to date by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban agreed to uphold women’s rights “within the Islamic framework” and make steps towards ending the war. Mr. Khalilzad hopes to have a draft peace agreement ready by September 1 before the upcoming Afghani elections. He has hinted that said agreement would address issues ranging everything from “constitutional revisions, the fate of militias, and a cease-fire” to whether “the country should be named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Despite the apparent progress being made towards achieving peace, the future of Afghanistan still remains unclear. Upon the conclusion of the intra-Afghan talks, leaders on both sides promised to "minimise civilian casualties to zero" and "ensure the security of public institutions such as schools, religious centres, mosques and hospitals.” Yet, just a day earlier, 18 people were killed in a car bombing orchestrated by the Taliban. This has sparked worry that the Taliban will not honor their end of the deal and use a complete US withdrawal to reclaim the country. According to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the fact that the US has already “put total withdrawal on the table and proceeded to the talks without the Afghan government” legitimizes the Taliban’s strength. She, like many others, is worried that without a considerable US presence in Afghanistan, the country will be overrun. This worry is not unwarranted considering the fact that last year, Afghan forces in Farah and Ghazni were overrun by Taliban troops until the US bailed them out. Similarly, Laila Hadari, a prominent Afghani women’s rights activist, poses the question: “Right now we can do business, we can get an education, have financial freedom… I run a business and a charity. According to the ‘Islamic framework,’ would I be able to do what I’m doing?”
Rather than remaining cautious and building strategic alliances to help monitor the Taliban after they inevitably withdraw from Afghanistan, the US is ostracizing its single most critical ally in the region, India. India, as the world’s largest democracy, has a personal stake in maintaining a free and democractic Afghanistan. Furthermore, by providing more foreign aid to the region than any other country in the world, a prosperous Afghanistan is in its best interests. On top of this, India is the most liked country in Afghanistan making the Afghani people more likely to be receptive to a strong Indian presence in the region. Yet, despite seeming to be a natural ally of the US, India was left out of recent talks in Beijing to discuss the peace process.
It is overly optimistic to assume that the Taliban will live up to all of their promises, and without another strong presence in the region to take the US’s place, it is very likely that the Taliban will take advantage of the power vacuum created by the premature withdrawal of US troops to reclaim the country. With the stability of South Asia and the Middle East at stake, not to mention the thousands of lives hanging in the balance, the US must be wary of a hasty, premature withdrawal from the region and must prioritize finding an ally to maintain and ensure the peace it is trying to achieve.
Photo Credit: The New York Times