Unsteady steps to peace
The process of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban that started in February with the US-Taliban agreement regarding US withdrawal from the region has finally started approaching a tangible milestone this week. While many have called the peace talks as historic, there is little doubt for all sides involved that the process is nowhere near a guarantee of lasting peace. But, considering that this is the first time the Taliban has even agreed to meet the Afghan delegation, (weak American stooges in their opinion) there is some reason to celebrate the process. An indication of how important the peace talks could be is the eagerness with which state actors from all sides — US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc — are all pre-emptively claiming a much needed diplomatic victory. For its part, the Taliban itself has been more guarded in its expectations, stating their wish for an Islamic system under which all tribes and ethnicities may live harmoniously. It must also be made clear that the Taliban did not previously and still don't see the whole occasion as a time for a 'ceasefire'. Indeed, the Taliban has continued to carry out offensives since the February deal and is still doing so at this moment. Many have noted that the Taliban in fact picks up the frequency of attacks during and before such talks to establish their position and gain leverage over the opposition by showing their willingness to continue fighting if necessary. It was precisely this tendency that made the US-Taliban deal in February seem like an exercise in futility.
It must also be noted that in February, the Afghanistan Government was, in fact, a third party in a deal that very much concerned them. This became an issue when the Afghan Government was unwilling to make good on certain promises that were made by the US without consulting it. The biggest of such promises was the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the Government, apparently conditional on the Taliban maintaining good behaviour. As it were, the Taliban took the ceasefire to only extend to the US soldiers and therefore did not relent with their attacks. When Afghan President Ghani refused to honour such a deal, all bets were off and peace in the region seemed to once again become a distant prospect. All the same, the US continued its withdrawal from the region and even managed to force Ghani to agree to a staggered release of the prisoners in batches of 1,000. Now, with the process complete, all the sides are back on the table.
The problems begin at an almost basic level. As may be obvious from their actions, the Taliban definitely do not view ceasefire as a prerequisite to the talks or the goals they wish to attain from them. Indeed, most observers have stated that they do not expect the Taliban to even consider a proper cessation of hostility until they achieve a substantial portion of their demands. On the other hand, the Afghan Government naturally wants a ceasefire to come before the negotiations can reach any meaningful step along the way to reconciliation. Next, the problem becomes even more inscrutable when it comes to what the Taliban hopes to achieve with these talks. The Taliban has made no secret of the fact that they would like a return of the pre-American invasion of traditional Islamic regimes. At the same time, the Taliban has also hinted that it is willing to reach 'some' measure of compromise on the democratic changes that have become a part of Afghan polity in recent decades. How much is 'some' is anyone's guess but certain human rights activists and social reformers are already worried. The limited progress that has been made to elevate the status of women in the region may be reversed in its entirety if the fears of the reformers prove to be true. As of now, what is expected is that the talks would lead to the formation of an interim government which will be expected to find an actual working compromise. In this regard, while Trump would like a swift deal in order to gain a foreign policy win ahead of the November elections, Rouhani may want to stretch things out with the possibility that a non-Trump Government will provide the Afghan Government with the support that Trump is not forthcoming with.
But America is hardly the only external party to be concerned with the matter. Pakistan has been a major force in bringing the two sides to the table and has obvious interests in making the Afghan-Taliban deal a reality. For India, the situation is a lot more slippery. For one, an official power structure with Taliban involved may net Pakistan an opportunity to gain unrestricted influence over the new government. The other factor, interestingly enough, involves China and the possibility of China taking an economic and strategic interest in the region as the US pulls out. China is already competing with India actively for infrastructure development and investment in the area. Altogether, the peace talks promise to be both explosive and unpredictable as many different sides play the shadow games of nations.