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Fresh Round of Intra-Afghan Talks Ready to Resume
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's deputy leader (right), addresses the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan peace talks on Sept. 12, 2020 in Doha. (Shahid Khan)

Fresh Round of Intra-Afghan Talks Ready to Resume

The resumption of the talks in Doha this week between the Afghan government and the Taliban come amid increased violence and uncertainty about how engaged the new Biden Administration will be.

[Islamabad] After a month-long break, the Afghan government and the Taliban are set to resume peace talks. The resumption comes amid increased violence including the targeted killings of prominent Afghans.

The US military on Monday blamed the Taliban for the spate of assassinations, the first time Washington has directly accused the insurgent group of the killings.

The charge comes against the backdrop of the resumption of the peace talks in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday, as both sides seek an end to the long-running conflict.

“The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders and journalists must … cease for peace to succeed,” Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, tweeted.

The deputy governor of Kabul province, five journalists, and a prominent election activist have been among those assassinated since November.

The long-awaited intra-Afghan peace talks first began on Sept. 12, 2020 in Doha, but the dialogue currently is on an agreed-upon hiatus.

The talks were the first time that the Afghan Taliban leadership agreed to have face-to-face meetings with Kabul‘s top representatives.

Direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government had been scheduled to begin in March 2020 but were delayed several times because of disagreements over a prisoner swap. The prisoner swap was negotiated in a historic peace agreement between the US and the Taliban early last year.

Behind-the-scenes efforts by the United States, Pakistan and Qatar finally paid off and the disagreements were solved, resulting in the start of the first-ever intra-Afghan peace talks.

Both parties said on Dec. 2, 2020, at the end of the last negotiating session, that they had reached the significant decision to continue with the peace talks.

There’s a big disconnect here, and it can only be bridged by a willingness on both sides to compromise, and that may be asking for too much

Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, hailed the decisionl in a tweet, saying: “This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues.”

Khalilzad further tweeted that “as negotiations on a political road map and permanent cease-fire begins, we will work hard with all sides for serious reduction of violence and even a cease-fire during this period. This is what the Afghan people want and deserve.”

In February 2020, the U.S. government and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, under which the Taliban pledged to not attack US troops stationed in the area. However, the Taliban continued its attacks on Afghan security forces, saying that the peace agreement was signed with the US administration and not with Kabul. Under the agreement, the US agreed to completely withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

For a permanent cease-fire and to pave the way for a political settlement in the war-torn country, intra-Afghan dialogue was the key provision of the US-Taliban Doha peace accord.

The Trump administration since has reduced the number of US troops in the country from about 14,000 to 8,600; meanwhile, all US troops are slated to leave Afghan soil by mid-2021.

In a prisoner swap, the Afghan government gradually released some 5,000 Taliban members held in its jails and the Taliban released 1,000 Afghan security officials.

Throughout 2020, violence continued across the country as the Afghan Air Force and Afghan security forces continued to target the Taliban, while the Taliban continued to carry out deadly attacks on Afghan security forces’ check posts and bases. The violations have resulted in countless human losses and infrastructure damage.

In the context of the US-Taliban Doha peace deal, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday tweeted about the US peace deal with the Taliban that: “No US servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan in almost a year, and Afghans are finally discussing peace and reconciliation among themselves. Such incredible progress.”

He also tweeted: “No New Wars, and we brought thousands of our men and women home to their families. America is still safe and our military is ready to strike if duty calls.”

Syed Najeeb Agha, a Herat-based former diplomat and political observer who witnessed the peace talks in Doha, told The Media Line that the major issue discussed in Doha was “to find a way to reach a permanent cease-fire in the country.”

He added that the secondary issues discussed were procedures regarding power-sharing and amendments to the country’s constitution. “The protection of women’s rights was also among the agenda points,” he also said.

It is the first time that the Taliban leadership has exhibited flexibility and leniency in its attitude toward being willing to talk about the provision and protection of women’s rights, he told The Media Line.

In the context of a fresh round of intra-Afghan talks, retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi, Pakistan‘s former defense minister and an Islamabad-based regional security expert, told The Media Line that: “We should expect a stalemate. (Afghan President) Ashraf Ghani’s side will try their best to extract a cease-fire and support for the present constitution.” But, he added, the Taliban will reject both of the proposals which “run counter to the group’s narrative and the purpose of its long, successful struggle.”

Lodhi said that the Taliban will ask Ghani to step down and may demand a grand jirga, an Afghan traditional grand assembly, to discuss the political future.

“The situation in Afghanistan has crossed the Rubicon and Biden’s government will not be in a position to reverse the process unless the US wants to again take a great risk,” Lodhi also told The Media Line.

Biden wants to leave as much as Trump did. So, there’s only so much the Biden government will be prepared to do. It will be engaged in the peace process, but its patience will not be unlimited

It is unclear how the fresh round of talks will be structured, but sources believe that during the session Afghan officials will push the Taliban for a permanent cease-fire.

In the past, despite US and global pressure, the Afghan Taliban has consistently rejected the Ghani-led government’s offers to agree to a lasting cease-fire, saying that would be possible only when a way forward for talks is agreed upon.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center and a leading Afghan expert, told The Media Line that the second round of intra-Afghan peace talks will be difficult.

“The two sides don’t only disagree fundamentally with the various agenda points – they also disagree in a big way on the ordering of these points,” he said.

“The biggest priority issues for Kabul – violence reduction, for example – are lesser priorities for the Taliban, and the top priorities for the Taliban – Afghanistan’s future political system, for example – are not priorities at all for Kabul now,” he said. “There’s a big disconnect here, and it can only be bridged by a willingness on both sides to compromise, and that may be asking for too much.”

Kugelman pointed out that the Biden Administration will have domestic US issues as its key priorities when it takes office.

“Afghanistan will be a foreign policy priority, but it may take time for the new administration to have the bandwidth to focus on it. When it does, it may try to be stricter with the Taliban than the Trump the administration was, by conditioning future troop withdrawals on violence reduction,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, Biden wants to leave as much as Trump did. So, there’s only so much the Biden government will be prepared to do. It will be engaged in the peace process, but its patience will not be unlimited,” he added.

Benjamin Minick, a San Diego-based defense and security analyst, told The Media Line that the talks “center on two different models of governance inside the country.”

“The Afghan government is seeking to preserve the status quo which protects the basic democratic structure and attempts to ensure basic rights for women, children and different populations inside the country. On the other hand, the Taliban is seeking a strict Islamist structure, enforcing its vision of Sharia in the same way as we had seen in the past,” he said.

Minick believes the Biden administration is “likely to follow Trump’s path in not investing significant resources into propping up the Afghan government and will most likely push for a compromise solution such as a power-sharing agreement, in the course of which the Taliban will formally sign off on some concessions important for the US interests.”

(The Taliban) has no incentive to stick to any agreements since it feels empowered to push onwards and has never been held accountable for previous violations

Irina Tuskerman, a New-York based national security expert and a geopolitical analyst, told The Media Line that: “From the Taliban’s perspective, a permanent cease-fire makes no sense unless it [Taliban] is in power and the dominant actor in the country. It has no incentive to stick to any agreements since it feels empowered to push onwards and has never been held accountable for previous violations.”

There are sticking points for the negotiations as well, she said. “The Afghan government is looking to retain power and come to some sort of a long-term understanding with the Taliban. It is looking for ways to keep the Taliban out of the government, which, from the Taliban’s perspective, is unacceptable,” she said.

Tuskerman adds that the Taliban “has never renounced terrorism and violence, nor agreed to put down weapons. Instead, they are gaining international legitimacy on their terms and increasingly sidelining Kabul.”

Responding to a question from The Media Line, Tuskerman said that the Biden Administration “has not formulated a clear policy on Afghanistan yet, but presumably will not take any radical steps in either direction in the first few months of the presidency,” She added, however, that “it can be expected that Biden will likely not wish to re-engage with Afghanistan until it becomes abundantly clear that Afghanistan is once again becoming a hub of international interest.”

“Biden is likely to continue to honor the peace process in some symbolic capacity to show that he is in line with the continuity of the US commitments and understands security repercussions,” she concluded.

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