The U.S. and Taliban broke new ground in Afghanistan’s conflict on 29 February, when U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed an agreement in Doha, Qatar. The terms of the agreement centre on a fourteen-month timeline for a phased drawdown of U.S. military forces in exchange for Taliban pledges to sever ties with terrorist groups and deny them safe haven. Most significantly, this deal is a precursor to the next phase, an Afghan peace process: the Taliban is obliged to take part in intra-Afghan negotiations shortly after the agreement’s signing, possibly as soon as 10 March, a date specified in the text.
The U.S.-Taliban accord sets no parameters for these talks, however. With the clock ticking, Crisis Group has pointed to twelve matters on which the parties should urgently come to terms before negotiations begin – lest this historic chance at peace in Afghanistan be lost.
The 29 February agreement is a welcome step toward ending the world’s deadliest conflict. The U.S.-Taliban talks stalled in September 2019, following President Donald Trump’s declaration that the process was “dead”. Contacts quietly restarted the following month, facilitated a high-profile prisoner exchange in November and officially resumed in December. The resumption of talks came with a new demand from Washington: some meaningful form of violence reduction to be carried out before signing an agreement. The Taliban proposed a seven-day “reduction in violence”, the details of which were then fleshed out and eventually implemented, starting on 22 February. This reduction in violence, although falling short of a total ceasefire, entailed a countrywide cessation of offensive operations by the Taliban, the U.S. military and Afghan government forces. All sides largely adhered to it.
The tight timeline for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations is critical to maintain the momentum of the peace process and to avoid the very real possibility of a resurgence in violence that could stem from any delay. This time pressure should push all sides to prepare urgently for the logistics, structure and content of intra-Afghan negotiations, with the support of regional and other governments that have an interest in successful peace talks.
Even with the negotiations possibly only days away, however, there is still much left to be decided and done to prepare for the negotiations: the parties have yet to name a venue for the talks; agree on an agenda (save for the Taliban’s public commitment to discuss a ceasefire “early on”); or designate the members of negotiating teams. Putting together the negotiating team is a problem particularly on the Afghan government’s side, due to a tense standoff among political figures over presidential election results. And after heavy U.S. involvement in the peace process so far, U.S. intentions regarding its role in shaping or participating in the next-stage negotiations are ambiguous – nor is it apparent what sort of U.S. involvement the Afghan negotiating sides would welcome.
A process as difficult as peace talks aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan is unlikely to get off to a productive start without thorough and urgent preparation. Crisis Group proposes twelve steps that can be taken to bolster the prospects for sustaining intra-Afghan talks beyond an opening round and eventually producing a political settlement to the conflict:
1): Confirm one location as the venue for talks, with a host that can play an effective facilitating role;
2): Designate a neutral mediator;
3): Decide on the structure of the negotiations;
4): Pre-negotiate the initial agenda;
5): Agree to “rules of the road” for the talks;
6): Identify easily agreed-upon principles early, and build on that foundation;
7): Maintain patience and persistence;
8): Preserve reduced violence;
9): Meet continually;
10): Create a “Friends of the Process” forum;
11): Make technical assistance available;
12): Agree on the talks’ overall objective.
I): Confirm A Single Location as the Venue, with a Host:
That Can Play an Effective Facilitating Role Unusually for a major diplomatic event that is expected to commence so soon, there is no confirmed venue for the intra-Afghan negotiations. (1) It is not even clear whether talks will take place in one venue or in several, with rotating host governments. The latter approach is unwise, because it could pose several unnecessary challenges. Most important, various host governments could bring different agendas of their own into play or, at the very least, confront the negotiating teams with different styles and expectations of their own involvement in the process. Logistical complications would almost certainly arise, consuming time to sort out varying diplomatic protocols and the mechanics and funding of travel and accommodation. The logistical discontinuities and friction thus introduced into the process could produce delays and unproductive gaps of time between meetings. Moreover, this approach would necessarily break up the negotiations into rounds instead of enabling continuous negotiation, thereby risking loss of momentum.
The parties should agree on a single host country, one that has experience organising and supporting negotiations but no political agenda of its own related to the substance of the talks. An experienced host could formally or informally play a facilitating role, helping keep negotiations on track.
II): Designate a Neutral Mediator:
The U.S. – which, for now, is the primary catalyst of the peace process – should take the lead in urging the designation of a neutral mediator. No other actor has the requisite leverage with the negotiating parties and with other governments that can also press the parties to agree to a mediator. The mediator could be associated with the government that hosts the talks but need not be. The most important qualifications are that the mediator be a person experienced in negotiations, trusted by the negotiating parties and of a stature that enables engagement with the parties and other governments at the highest levels. The two negotiating parties could formally issue the invitation to mediate.
Peace processes require process managers. In this case, with neither of the Afghan sides unequivocally having the upper hand on the battlefield, neither is in a position to claim for itself the leading role in managing the process. Moreover, with the parties’ negotiating positions still quite vague, it is unlikely that talks held solely in a plenary format will be productive. A mediator could assist by keeping the content and progression of the talks focused, by helping negotiate the agenda before or as talks begin, and by helping establish benchmarks for progress. A mediator also could float compromises and alternatives when discussions reach deadlock, as well as conduct gobetween “proximity talks” to keep the process moving forward when plenary meetings are unproductive. In addition, a mediator supported by a secretariat composed of neutral technocrats could manage the development and iterations of draft text for any agreements that talks produce.
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