In a positive sign for political reconciliation in Afghanistan, an Afghan Government delegation recently met with Taliban representatives in Qatar – ostensibly for a research conference, but most likely to discuss the commencement of formal peace talks. Representatives from Pakistan also attended.
These 'open discussions' build on a history of back-channel negotiations between the Taliban and the international community, and US-sponsored attempts to begin formal peace talks. Like any sensitive political negotiation, these meetings are usually kept secret and both parties downplayed the conference, claiming participants were there in a personal capacity only.
Regardless of how we describe the meeting, it was the first publicly acknowledged direct discussions between the Afghan Government and the Taliban – a key step in reaching any political settlement. In February, Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, began rumours of an imminent sit-down between his government and the Taliban, although this was denied by both the US and Taliban representatives.
But although this is a hopeful sign, Afghanistan watchers recognise that we have been here before, and know not to hold their breath.
In 2013, the opening of a Taliban Political Commission office in Doha brought renewed optimism to a US-led peace process which President Obama first outlined in 2009. Just days later, a spat about the office resembling a Taliban embassy – flying the old regime flag and using the name 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' – shuttered it, stunting hopes for progress. Soon after, then-president Hamid Karzai suspended security negotiations with the US, chastising Washington for excluding both him and the Afghan Government in a process he said must be Afghan-led.
But the conditions for political reconciliation are probably more conducive now than they have been since the US-led invasion in 2001: Karzai is gone from office, Pakistan is playing a helpful role, we know the Taliban representatives can deliver outcomes, and everyone's initial 'red lines' have softened. Let's examine each of these factors in turn.
First, Hamid Karzai: it was he, not Kabul, that the Taliban refused to negotiate with, believing him to be corrupt and weak. And Karzai had an antagonistic relationship with both Islamabad and Washington. In contrast, President Ashraf Ghani and his deputy Abdullah have both welcomed and leveraged US participation in the process.
Second, Pakistan has become a more constructive player in the process, using its influence with Taliban leaders to encourage direct talks, probably backed up with threats to their safe haven if they refuse to participate.
It is often said that Islamabad has malign intentions in Afghanistan; that it doesn't want political reconciliation and would prefer the country remain in conflict. In truth, Pakistan wants a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and believes this can only be achieved through political settlement. But Islamabad also believes it has a right to sit at the negotiating table and has in the past scuttled talks from which it was excluded. Moreover, Pakistan has previously refused to threaten the Taliban's safe havens in Quetta because it is fighting internal security challenges and fears retribution if it antagonises the Taliban.
But Ghani has worked to improve relations between Kabul and Islamabad and his efforts have paid dividends. By taking concrete steps which have addressed Pakistan's concerns – such as targeting Pakistani militant safe havens in eastern Afghanistan – Ghani has shown he is a reliable and trustworthy partner. He has also built important ties with Pakistan's powerful military leader General Raheel Sharif through frequent and reciprocal visits. These developments have probably changed the calculus at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Having been assured Pakistan will be included, and believing the peace process is more likely to be successful now that credible interlocutors head Afghanistan's Government, Islamabad calculates that pressuring the Taliban has become less risky.
Third, although Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's position on peace talks isn't publicly known, there are signals that the representatives in Qatar led by Tayeb Agha are acting with some authority and can deliver. For example, in May 2014, the Taliban and the US conducted a prisoner exchange – Sgt Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders held in Guantanamo Bay – unachievable without the Quetta Shura's acquiescence.
Finally, all sides have shown they are willing to make concessions, and these past confidence-building measures demonstrate there is a degree of trust between them.
In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined preconditions for entering into peace talks: that the Taliban renounce violence, abandon an alliance with al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan Constitution. For their part, Taliban leaders often say there will be no peace deal until all foreign military forces are out of Afghanistan. But we've seen both sides soften their 'red lines' and engage without these preconditions being met. The US agreed to the opening of the Doha office without a formal denouncement of al Qaeda, instead accepting a public statement from the Taliban that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries. And as early as 2012, Taliban representatives were open to a continued US military presence in Afghanistan up to 2024, subject to some conditions.
As President Obama has said of the Afghan peace process, 'there will be a lot of bumps in the road.' Even as talks begin, this year's fighting season is kicking off in Afghanistan's north, with heavy fighting between the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban in the province of Kunduz. And there are plenty of reasons for pessimism – including whether all parts of the Taliban would accept a peace deal.
But direct engagement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban is an important step towards an eventual political solution. Although Australia is not directly involved, we should use our relationships with both Islamabad and Kabul to encourage them to bring a political end to a conflict in which so many of our troops have been involved for so long.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user ResoluteSupportMedia.