A simplified picture would perhaps be of some help in making sense of what happened to the US-Taliban peace talks, and where it might lead.
For starters, we should recognize that the nine rounds of talks in Doha, that started nearly a year ago, were not aimed at peace in Afghanistan. At best, they can be described as prelude to any attempt for peace.
It was a cookie that wanted to crumble.
It was a gala parade of conflict of interests. Consider this:
- Trump was interested in reaching a deal with the Taliban because he is looking at his second term in office, not because of his love for peace in Afghanistan
- Khalilzad was sweating in pursuit of any of the two prizes – at best, interim president of Afghanistan, and when that was not forthcoming, highlighting his suitability as secretary of state during the next term of Trump; peace in Afghanistan was not his coveted goal
- If there is a choice between the peace and prolonged, preferably permanent military presence in Afghanistan, and it is an either-or situation, the American power establishment i.e. Pentagon and CIA would ditch peace any old day
- For the Ghani administration, if the peace should come at the cost of their own power, they will rather maintain the status quo
- The Taliban, hardly a peace dove, would welcome peace only if it is accompanied by their controlling share in power
Peace is not obtainable for now because it was not the top priority for any of the main players.
The outcome of the Doha talks was publicized by all sides – The foreign troops will withdraw under a mutually agreed timetable, and the Taliban will guarantee that the Afghan soil will not be used against the USA or any of its allies.
Together with this, the two other points – the inter-Afghan dialogue for peace, and the formation of a unity government – were to be dealt with during the second tier of negotiations with the participation of several players, possibly in Tashkent.
The first sign that all was not well came when Pompeo said that he will not sign the deal.
The second sign was when Trump said that 8500 troops will remain in Afghanistan, possibly indefinitely.
The third was not a sign but a decisive blow when Trump smashed the deal with a single tweet. Everyone was stunned.
In little more than 24 hours the Americans understood that it was a case of brinkmanship gone too far and started sending out signals that the talks could resume. However, the top Taliban leadership has gone into hiding and the Doha delegation cannot reopen the discourse on its own.
The Taliban actually made the best of a bad situation.
The Taliban leadership has gone underground and that gives the negotiators from their side a legitimate excuse to use the delaying tactics.
Meanwhile, a Taliban delegation visited Russia and found warm welcome there. They are likely to visit China, Turkey and Iran in the coming days.
There are indications that the Taliban are not in a hurry to start speaking to the Americans any time soon. Instead, they might be pondering the announcement of an interim government in the areas under their control.
According to several reports, the Taliban control about 60-65% of the territory of Afghanistan. If they can add another 5% or so, they will be in a position to make a credible case of their legitimacy.
It is noteworthy that the Taliban have been expanding their presence systematically. They are almost in control of the entire territory adjacent to the borders with Central Asia. It means that any major projects such as TAPI, and the power transmission network from Central to South Asia will pass through the areas under their power.
It goes without saying that any benefits from such projects will fall into the lap of the Taliban. They will be able to line their coffers while simultaneously enhancing their popularity because of the benefits coming to the people in those areas.
If the Taliban announce an interim government and some key players such as Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey recognize it, it will be an entirely new ball game where the USA will not be in a position to write the rules. /// nCa, 16 September 2019