- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2019

A whirlwind round of negotiations between Washington and the Taliban have brought Afghanistan closer to the brink of peace than ever before, but a number of diplomatic hurdles could derail the American-led effort to end the U.S. conflict in Southwest Asia.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said late last week that his team of negotiators and their Taliban counterparts agreed, in principle, to a roadmap for peace.

That progress, made during marathon talks between the two sides in the Qatari city of Doha over the last month, have administration officials confident a formal peace pact could be in place as soon as July.

“There is sufficient time where we could reach an agreement” by that month, which is when Afghanistan is slated to hold nationwide presidential elections, Mr. Khalilzad said Friday.

“We want to see the war end in Afghanistan. We want the war to end this year,” the longtime U.S. diplomat and Afghan native said during a briefing on the negotiations at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP).

Supporters and critics of President Trump’s plan for Afghanistan, known as the South Asia strategy, credit White House efforts for bringing the Taliban closer to a peace deal than any previous U.S. administration.

Despite such progress, challenges to a lasting peace in Afghanistan remain. Mr. Khalilzad said Friday that Americans were able to lock in “guarantees and enforcement mechanisms” from Taliban leaders to ensure Afghanistan would never become a safe haven for international terrorist groups like al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

But aside from that concession, other political, economic and national security issues for a postwar Afghanistan remain unaddressed.

Questions over how the Taliban will be able to enmesh itself into the country’s political structure, how amenable the country’s disparate political groups will be to a U.S.-brokered peace deal and what future role American forces will play in the country continue to beleaguer the peace process, analysts say.

“There is so far no agreement on talks among the Afghan will about an inclusive political system or a cease-fire while [those] talks are going on,” said Scott Worden, director of Central Asia projects at USIP.

“Beyond a [just] political agreement, future peace talks will need to address a range of thorny issues on cease-fires, prisoner releases, and human and women’s rights protections as well as how to enforce the terms of an agreement,” Mr. Worden said in a recent analysis of the Afghan peace process.

Mr. Trump’s pledge to pull 7,000 American troops — or half of all U.S. forces in the country — from Afghanistan is posing problems for the peace talks.

The offer of a troop withdrawal “demonstrated that U.S. was serious about offers to remove troops in exchange for counterterrorism security guarantees,” Mr. Worden said. “On the other hand, withdrawal rumors [create] a perception in the region that the U.S. may be willing to withdraw even without a peace deal, [reducing] the value of that bargaining chip.”

The key to resolving those underlying issues, specifically concerning inter-Afghan talks and a possible cease-fire, will be a major focus in the days and weeks before the June deadline, Mr. Khalilzad said.

“The issue of inter-Afghan dialogue and a cease-fire must happen ASAP why should the killing go on,” he said.

“Many issues of concern to the Afghans, but also to the rest of the world, can only be dealt with in an inter-Afghan dialogue,” he added, referring to women’s rights and human rights in a postwar Afghanistan.

Getting the Taliban to the negotiation table by bludgeoning them on the battlefield through a intensified U.S. air campaign has been a key pillar of Mr. Trump’s strategy. But Taliban negotiators have been unwilling to agree to a cease-fire, since a end to fighting would take away one of the group’s main bargaining chips, Mr. Khalilzad said.

Continuing their terrorist attacks is still “one of the only instruments they have to get concessions from the other side,” he said.

Kabul’s tenuous hold on the country and its inability to contain the Taliban’s momentum continues to undermine the central government’s claims as the legitimate political power in the country, other regional analysts note.

Only 63 percent of the population in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces remains under the sway of the central government in Kabul, with the rest under the influence or direct control of the Taliban, according to recent U.S. government assessments.

Taliban negotiators continue to refuse to meet with representatives of the Afghan government during the talks, only holding direct negotiations with Mr. Khalilzad and the U.S. delegation.

For their part, Taliban leaders say they do not want to hold direct talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, saying such talks would give the current president a political advantage in the coming July elections. So far, 18 candidates including Mr. Ghani have formally announced plans to vie for the presidency in July.

“There are indications they would be willing to sit down with the [Afghan] government in a multi-party arrangement,” Mr. Khalilzad said, declining to say how soon peace talks with the central government could happen.

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