Kabul: The US and the Taliban appear close to announcing an agreement to end nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan, which would include a timetable for foreign troop withdrawal and direct discussions between the militants and the local government.
The withdrawal of the US and NATO forces has been the most contentious point in the negotiations. The initial withdrawal is expected to include roughly 5,000 of the 14,000 US troops still stationed in Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban must ensure it does not provide a base from where terrorist groups can carry out attacks against other countries, and to respect the civil and political rights of Afghan citizens.
The ninth round of peace talks began in Qatar on Sunday and are continuing. Afghan authorities have been largely sidelined in the process and the Taliban have escalated attacks as the negotiations continue. The extremist group — which controls or contests 50% of the country — refuses to talk directly with the Afghan government until foreign troops leave.
A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, said on Twitter Wednesday the militant group was close to finalizing the peace accord with the US, however there was no word from US special envoy for the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad.
President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqq, told reporters in Kabul that Khalilzad would meet the president in “a day or two days" to brief him on the talks and the details would then be shared with the public. Afghanistan will enter negotiations with the Taliban from a “position of strength" in order to safeguard the gains made in the past 18 years, Sediqq said.
Still, many fear that a rapid US withdrawal might lead to chaos in Afghanistan.
One clear danger is that the Taliban could sign a deal with the US and then return to the battlefield, without agreeing to a ceasefire or intra-Afghan talks, said Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center.
“It’s certainly a possibility, given how much of a battlefield advantage the Taliban would derive from a withdrawal of US forces," Kugelman said in an email. “The group would have an opportunity for the ages to try to overthrow the Afghan government by force."
In an online poll conducted by the country’s largest news channel, Tolonews, 54% of the 800 respondents said they’re “optimistic" the US-Taliban peace talks can help end the war.
There’s a lot of pressure on Ghani — who is seeking another five year term -- to postpone the presidential election, which is due on Sept. 28 and has already been delayed twice. The majority of the presidential candidates say peace with the Taliban should come before the elections, suggesting an interim government should be formed -- a suggestion Ghani has rejected.
“One of the worst-case scenarios for the peace process is that you get a US-Taliban deal, only to have all the progress and momentum squandered in an election that takes attention away from reconciliation and sharpens the political rivalries that already constrain movement on the reconciliation front," Kugelman said.
The talks have coincided with the growth of the Islamic State group in the region. This month alone, IS has claimed responsibility for an attack on a wedding in Kabul, in which 80 people died.
“ISIS would be a big winner from a US-Taliban deal," Kugelman said. “US air power has pummeled the group in Afghanistan for several years, and a reduction of the US force presence would ease a lot of that military pressure on ISIS."
At the same time, Afghanistan’s women — who have won hard fought gains in education and employment since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 — remain deeply concerned about any potential deal.
“The Taliban cannot be trusted, and we’re gravely concerned over the possible negative consequences from the deal," said Mashal Roshan, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network.
“The presence of international forces serve as a guarantor for the protection of women’s rights. If they’re gone, the Afghan women will lose hard-won gains in education, politics and other arenas of the government," Roshan added, urging the United Nations to monitor any deal that involves the Taliban.