Doha, Qatar – It has been almost a week since negotiators returned to Doha to resume a second round of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with an American team speaking separately from both sides.
But senior Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders were notable for their absence from this series of meetings.
On the Taliban side, chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Hakim and the head of the Taliban office in Qatar, Mullah Baradar, have not yet returned from their trip to Pakistan.
In recent weeks, US diplomats and military leaders have also visited Pakistan. In a meeting between the Pakistani military and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey, the two sides discussed the urgent need to reduce violence in Afghanistan.
Islamabad insists it “is playing a positive role and that its leaders are determined to help the Afghans find a solution” through talks.
Meanwhile, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his entourage returned to Doha after brief stops in Islamabad and Kabul.
An Afghan official told Al Jazeera that “members of the committee are in Qatar and more are arriving as talks continue.”
“We are ready and prepared for the talks, there is no delay [us] and no new proposal has been sent to us, ”Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Al Jazeera.
Those close to the talks said a sense of urgency on both sides to find common ground, reduce violence and move forward appears to be lacking in the current round of negotiations.
The second round of intra-Afghan talks began this evening at a preparatory meeting. At the meeting, it was decided that the teams nominated by the two sides to discuss the agenda items would start their work next Saturday to discuss the issues on the agenda.
– Dr M. Naeem (@IeaOffice) January 6, 2021
New US administration
The reason for the lack of urgency in the ongoing talks is attributed to the change in US administration led by President-elect Joe Biden and his policy in Afghanistan.
Biden will inherit a situation where only 2,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the outgoing Trump administration ordered an accelerated troop withdrawal.
Jake Sullivan, the designated national security adviser for the Biden administration, recently said the United States would support diplomacy along the lines of the US-Taliban peace accord signed in February last year to ensure that “Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for US”.
The first round of talks, which began in September, ended in December after the two sides agreed on rules of procedure.
A roadmap for post-war Afghanistan, a nationwide ceasefire, and disarmament of the Taliban and other armed groups were on the agenda for the latest round of talks which opened on Tuesday.
During his trip to Kabul, US Special Envoy Khalilzad met with Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and other leaders, but President Ashraf Ghani did not have not met.
While timing issues and health concerns were cited as the reasons, people close to the presidency said Khalilzad’s talks on a caretaker government – a long-standing demand of the Taliban – did not go well with it. Ghani.
Khalilzad was praised for his shuttle diplomacy during the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, which paved the way for intra-Afghan dialogue. But the pace of progress has slowed, with record violence in the war-torn country.
Members of the Afghan government delegation to Doha say the US diplomatic team led by Khalilzad has conceded too much to the Taliban.
Sources in the Afghan presidency say that the Ghani administration has released 5,000 Taliban prisoners at the insistence of the United States, but that there has been no reduction in violence.
But there was a point in violence in recent months – including targeted assassinations of officials, activists and journalists – blamed by the Afghan government and the United States on the Taliban.
Sources added that a further release of thousands more prisoners in exchange for a short-term ceasefire is an option on the table.
A source close to the president told Al Jazeera that if the release of the prisoners ends the violence and paves the way for a permanent ceasefire, then Ghani could take advantage of such an opportunity.
An alternative deal that sees more Taliban prisoners released alongside an extension of the Ghani government’s tenure could eventually work, according to officials close to the talks.
But, although the outgoing Trump administration is pushing for a ceasefire agreement before stepping down on January 20, the Taliban and the Afghan government have reacted lukewarm.
The Taliban have said that – in accordance with their deal with the United States – reducing violence depends on the release of prisoners, as well as removing their names from global financial blacklists.
End the violence?
According to the US-Taliban agreement, all US soldiers are expected to leave Afghanistan by April.
But more recently, the Pentagon has hinted that the Taliban has failed to deliver on promises to reduce violence or take concrete steps to sever ties with al Qaeda.
The US government’s plan to withdraw its forces completely from Afghanistan has even been criticized by the country’s Republicans and the NATO Secretary General.
But the stakes are high if the United States decides to change its plans to leave Afghanistan, with the likely result of even more violence.
Although nearly all of the victims of the recent increase in violence are Afghans, the Taliban have insisted they are fighting foreign occupation and those who aid it.
Before the decisive talks, a Taliban leader told Al Jazeera: “My father was a fighter, I fought the Soviets and then the American occupation. If the occupants do not see that they have to leave, my children will fight them too.
The Taliban and government leaders said the talks were a “unique and historic opportunity” for Afghans to resolve their differences.
Future generations will judge them on their success or failure.
For now, both camps are biding their time.