After 19 years of fighting, peace talks between Afghan leaders and the Taliban are finally set to begin. Previous attempts to find a political settlement to end the U.S.-led war have gone nowhere, but with President Trump making an all-out push to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, his administration forged a deal with the Taliban earlier this year that paved the way for intra-Afghan talks to begin.
Yet with violence continuing unabated, it remains to be seen if the talks will be derailed before they even get off the ground.
Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s point person for the talks, says he is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead but that the negotiating teams are well-prepared to strike a deal.
Speaking virtually to the U.S. Institute of Peace, he said the two sides have reached the “threshold of a unique opportunity for peace.”
“This is a process with many variables and layers,” Abdullah said during the briefing on June 24. “This is why it is not — and cannot be — a one-man or one-faction endeavor. It requires political engagement, consultation, coordination and action.”
He noted that the Afghan team “will be diverse and represent all walks of life” — including women, young people and minorities. The talks are also expected to include representatives from roughly 20 countries, predominantly in the Middle East, along with the U.S. and Russia.
“Chairman Abdullah struck a good note on the need for inclusivity and compromise to end the decades-long war,” said Scott Worden, USIP’s director for Afghanistan. “Not only do women need to be included, but representatives from across the political spectrum, including the Taliban. He made effective points about wars not ending when only one side compromises.”
Abdullah’s own appointment as chairman of the newly established High Council for National Reconciliation was a compromise between him and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after the two rivals fought over the results of the 2019 presidential elections, with both claiming victory (a repeat of the same spat the two had during the 2014 elections).
The decision to strike a power-sharing deal in May paved the way for intra-Afghan talks to begin, but another major hurdle quickly emerged when Ghani refused to immediately agree to a prisoner swap that was stipulated in the deal that Trump forged — without Kabul’s input. The agreement to release “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government and 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taliban was intended to build confidence, but Ghani was reluctant to give up so much leverage before talks began.
Eventually, though, Ghani moved ahead with the prisoner release, removing a major hurdle. Abdullah said the government has released three-quarters of the prisoners on the Taliban’s list.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to peace is the ongoing violence.
On July 22, several Afghan government helicopters bombed a village compound where people had been hosting a welcome-home celebration for freed Taliban prisoners. Unconfirmed reports indicate that as many as 45 people, insurgents and civilians, may have been killed or wounded. Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said it would investigate the airstrikes but denied that any civilians were killed.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy for U.S.-Taliban negotiations, condemned the airstrike in a tweet, but he also condemned ongoing attacks by the Taliban.
The group reportedly killed 291 Afghan security personnel in June, accounting for the “deadliest week” the country has seen in the last 19 years, according to Javid Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council.
Faisal confirmed on Twitter that the Taliban carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces that resulted in the 291 deaths and an additional 550 wounded. The Taliban denied the government figures. Instead, the militant group claimed it had carried out some attacks, but all in self-defense.
“Where does it get us if the current level of violence continues in the same way it is?” Abdullah said, urging Afghanistan’s international partners to help the government in its efforts to curb the violence. “If we are to solve this issue permanently, forever, and reach a peaceful settlement, we all need to take steps that shows and proves we are serious.”
But the Taliban have stuck to their promise not to attack American forces as part of the deal they inked with the U.S. on Feb. 29. As a result, the U.S. troop withdrawal has continued and on July 20, Khalilzad tweeted that America’s troop presence in Afghanistan had been cut from 12,000 to 8,600 and that five bases had been shuttered. Trump has also said he wants all U.S. troops home before the election in November — roughly three months earlier than originally negotiated — leading to fears that the president will remove troops regardless of conditions on the ground.
The deal between the White House and the Taliban also states that intra-Afghan talks must start — not be concluded — for the withdrawal to happen, compounding fears that the Taliban will simply wait out the clock and then try to seize power once the Americans leave.
But Abdullah sought to allay these fears, pointing out that the U.S.-deal is conditions-based, and one condition is that Afghanistan not become a terrorist base for groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also noted that it would be a “great mistake” for the Taliban to drag out negotiations.
But Abdullah conceded that even if peace talks move forward, there won’t be an immediate agreement. Both sides, he said, need to compromise, requiring a phased-in approach.
“No peace processes can succeed with one side making compromises,” Abdullah said. “If there are compromises, it has to be on both sides.”
Moreover, he said Afghans will not sacrifice their hard-fought democratic gains for the sake of a deal — and the two sides are “far apart” on their vision for what a future government will look like.
The Afghan government wants “a sovereign, democratic and united republic,” Abdullah said, while the Taliban want the country to become an Islamic emirate.
“It’s not like the difference between nine and 10. On certain issues, we are far apart,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, Abdullah said the collective desire of Afghans who “yearn and deserve to live in peace” will help push the talks along.
To accomplish a permanent peace, though, Abdullah said leaders of the talks must bring in minority voices — including women and victims of violence — to ensure compromises benefit the entire region.
“A key challenge will be to keep the process inclusive, representative and focused … always seeking solutions and compromises at each step leading to realistic outcomes that all Afghans can own,” Abdullah said.
“The character of the opportunity for starting a peace process is historically unique,” he added. “It’s not perfect nor will it be an easy exercise. We need to be realistic about our means, the deep divides, the anger and hurt that needs healing, the political roadblocks, the opportunistic and the spoiler behaviors, as well as expectations and shared interests.”
Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.