There were reports last week that the Afghan Government has officially met with the Taliban for the first time in years in Islamabad to discuss the beginning of formal peace talks – talks which could start as soon as the end of Ramadan later this week. This follows a series of unofficial meetings held throughout the first half of the year between a variety of Afghan officials, High Peace Council members, and other stakeholders (including prominent women) with Taliban representatives in China, Norway and Qatar.
This could mark a turning point in the long, haphazard peace process in Afghanistan, although there have been false starts before; most notably, the collapse of the Taliban office in Doha in 2013.
There will be understandable scepticism about this latest tilt at peace. Reports of the meeting in Islamabad were accompanied by news of another car bombing of a NATO convoy in Kabul. While its representatives attend meetings, the Taliban presses ahead with its campaign against the Afghan National Security Forces, making advances throughout the provinces and conducting terrorist attacks against major targets, including the Afghan parliament in late June. Commentators instinctively question how the Taliban could be serious about peace while at the same time attacking the national legislature.
Certainly it remains unclear how much of the senior leadership or the rank-and-file of the Taliban support a peace deal. But it is wrong to equate continued attacks with a failure of the peace process. The Taliban will want to negotiate from the strongest possible position, and that means pressing ahead with its military campaign. Just as we would expect the Government to continue its counter-insurgency and military operations in the absence of any agreement, it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise from the Taliban.
Additionally, elements within the Taliban opposed to negotiating a settlement may try to derail talks through provocative acts of violence. Indeed, questioning the validity of the peace process every time there is a major attack could empower the hardliners.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said emphatically that the Afghan Government is ready to talk peace, and there are good reasons to believe that the Taliban (or at least elements within its leadership) also feels the time is right to cash in its chips and make a deal.
Ghani's outreach to Pakistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China to build regional support for the peace process has increased diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to engage. A thawing of relations between Kabul and Islamabad in particular, and a shift in mood in Pakistan about its relationship with the Afghan Taliban following the Peshawar school massacre, may have raised concerns among the Taliban leadership about overstaying their welcome in Pakistan.
With the group's finances strained and fighters weary of the long war, the Taliban's military capability is unlikely to improve in future fighting seasons. Despite its strong showing in the 2015 fighting season, the Taliban cannot hold territory for long periods and it is unlikely to win an outright military victory in the foreseeable future. The Taliban's success this year may be an opportunity for it to negotiate from a position of strength.
A spate of defections to ISIS in the last 12 months may also increase the pressure to make a deal before the Taliban loses more numbers to this new competitor in Afghanistan. Contributing to this concern would have been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's recent announcement that Hezb-e-Islami will now fight for ISIS against the Taliban, raising the spectre that ISIS could grow to become a serious military threat to the Taliban.
Taliban engagement this year is a cause for optimism. The most recent informal meeting hosted by Pugwash in Qatar produced a statement indicating the Taliban may be willing to consider compromising on its traditional red-line issues of women's rights and education, modifications to the Afghan constitution, and the departure of foreign troops. Its willingness to meet publicly on so many occasions is itself a positive change.
If the Islamabad meeting does lead to peace talks, it marks the beginning of a long and difficult process rather than the end of one. In the meantime, we can expect more violence, breakdowns and resumptions of talks, and mixed messages from within the Taliban as competing factions jostle for power and airtime. Forbearance from all sides, including Western coalition partners sceptical after years of disappointments, will be needed if the peace process is to stand a chance.
Photo by Flickr user Ash Carter.