The United States resumed talks with the Taliban in Qatar on Saturday, a US source said, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly halted diplomatic efforts that could end America’s longest war.
A State Department spokesperson said, on Saturday the Afghan group held their first round of talks with the US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban hold a political office. The meetings in Doha follow several days of talks between Khalilzad and President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In September, the United States and the Taliban had appeared on the verge of signing a deal that would have seen Washington begin withdrawing thousands of troops in return for security guarantees.
It was also expected to pave the way towards direct talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul and, ultimately, a possible peace agreement after more than 18 years of war.
But that same month, Trump abruptly called the year-long effort “dead” and withdrew an invitation to the insurgents to join secret talks at his US retreat at Camp David after the killing of an American soldier.
“The US rejoined talks today in Doha. The focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire,” said a US source briefed on efforts to end almost two decades of war in Afghanistan.
Thus far, the Taliban have called Ghani a “US puppet” and have refused to negotiate with him. The renewed talks will lay the foundations for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that many hope will lead to a peace agreement.
While negotiations for peace continue the Taliban have refused to a ceasefire. The US military daily reported 37 members of the Taliban were killed by air force attacks and operations conducted by the Afghan National security force killed 22 members.
The Taliban have made significant gains in Afghanistan and now holds territory in almost half of the country, they have continued to carry out regular attacks on foreign military outposts forces across the country.
US President Donald Trump, has repeatedly expressed frustration with the US’s longest war in history and said he wants Afghanistan’s own forces to take the responsibility to police Afghanistan and bring the American troops home.
On a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, at Baghram airbase north of Kabul, Trump demanded a ceasefire with the Taliban but admitted that the war “will not be decided on the battlefield,” adding that ultimately, there will need to be a political solution… decided by the people of the region.”
Even during the stall in talks, US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has in recent weeks made a whistle-stop tour of nations with a stake in Afghan peace, including Pakistan. He recently arranged a captive swap in which the Taliban released an American and an Australian academic whom they had held hostage for three years.
The halt to the talks in September came at a crucial stage when it was thought both sides had almost concluded an agreement. That established a phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees including, engaging in intra- Afghan negotiations to end decades of fighting in the country.
The Taliban have until now refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate regime.
The Taliban claim they would have agreed to a ceasefire with foreign troops in areas of foreign troop withdrawal. But they insist on issues related to the cessation of fighting with the Afghan security forces would only be considered when Afghan-Taliban negotiations are launched. The group say they are reluctant to agree to a nationwide ceasefire as it will undermine their influence.
In a nod to concerns raised by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the State Department voiced support for a ceasefire – a key priority for Kabul before it enters negotiations with the insurgents.
“Ambassador Khalilzad will rejoin talks with the Taliban to discuss steps that could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire,” the State Department said on Wednesday as it announced the resumption of efforts to end the conflict.
Scott Smith, a senior advisor on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington DC based think tank, highlighted the positive changes that occurred since the breakdown of talks in September. These include the September 28th Afghan elections and the recent Afghan-Taliban hostage swap.
However, some Afghan analysts urged caution in the negotiations. Speaking on Friday at a luncheon hosted by the Meridian International Centre, a nonpartisan, public diplomacy organization in Washington, former US and NATO forces commander Gen. John Nicholson, cautioned against making any agreements with the Taliban that does not bind the group to a nationwide ceasefire or a reduction in the level of violence.
“The ceasefire on the part of the Taliban, as some of them have said publicly, reduces their leverage. Well, a troop withdrawal on the part of the coalition reduces our military leverage,” Nicholson said.
“To simply negotiate a deal that allows for the withdrawal of international forces and some sort of renunciation of terrorism, in my view, will not last. And therefore it would not protect our security interest nor will it protect the gains that need to be preserved inside Afghanistan,” Nicholson said.