The Taliban leadership has finally issued an official statement on the talks with US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad in Abu Dhabi 10 days ago. The deftly worded statement dated December 29 says:
“Some media outlets have published rumors that the representatives of the Islamic Emirate will hold talks with those of the Kabul administration in Saudi Arabia. These rumors are baseless. The position of the Islamic Emirate concerning talks with the Kabul administration remains the same and has not changed. We are advancing [the] negotiations process with the United States under a strong and extensive plan to bring an end to the occupation of our country Afghanistan. It is hoped that the negotiations process is not dealt with carelessly nor anyone given false hopes. As the United States has entered into the negotiations process with the Islamic Emirate, therefore, it must be advanced in a serious manner and not used as propaganda material.”
Evidently, after due deliberation, the Taliban leadership said they were unable to accede to the Saudi-Emirati joint proposal for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Talks in Saudi in January
However, the Taliban statement is completely silent on the twin proposal put forward by the Saudis and Emiratis at Abu Dhabi – namely, on a three-month ceasefire. The Taliban would not reject the idea but would presumably revisit it depending on the progress of ongoing talks with the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The ceasefire proposal went alongside the US media leak that 7,000 American troops might be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban intends to continue with their talks with Khalilzad. The next round will take place in Saudi Arabia in January. The Taliban statement claims that it is “advancing” the negotiations with Khalilzad “under a strong and extensive plan to bring an end to the occupation.” The wording seems to imply that the Taliban keeps an open mind on a compromise based on a scaled-down American troop presence in Afghanistan in the near term.
The Taliban’s rejection of talks with the Afghan government will cause anger and consternation in Kabul. There is some evidence that Kabul watches with disquiet the intensifying negotiations between the US and the Taliban. Ghani recently appointed two figures who are known to be anti-Taliban and have a lineage going back to the Northern Alliance as the new defense and interior ministers in his cabinet, signaling a potent reset of the power calculus. Equally, Ghani also harbors political ambition to secure another term as president.
Suffice to say, the Taliban’s rejection of talks with Kabul or a ceasefire needn’t be taken as a red line. Taliban may change its stance on participating in intra-Afghan dialogue at a future point. The point is the Saudi role in hosting the next round of US-Taliban talks surged following a telephone conversation between King Salman and Ghani on Saturday.
Ghani reportedly praised the “prominent” role by King Salman and agreed that the next meeting of the US and Taliban on Saudi soil would be “a good step and start for subsequent processes.” The King, in turn, promised to use his offices to consolidate peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Of course, wherever Saudi Arabia goes, the Middle Eastern conundrum will cast shadows. The Saudi surge to take charge of the Afghan peace talks will most certainly cause heartburn in some regional capitals – in Doha and Tehran, and possibly in Ankara as well.
Pakistani diplomacy is working overtime to smoothen wrinkles. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has just visited Doha. He was in Tehran a week ago. Earlier, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Bajwa also visited Doha (which used to host a Taliban representative office in recent years). And Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is reportedly planning to visit Turkey on January 3-4.
From the Saudi angle, it is a smart move that to underscore that the strategic partnership between the two countries remains resilient, notwithstanding the scars left by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, from the US perspective too, the Saudi role is irreplaceable, given the longstanding relationship between Riyadh and the Taliban movement dating back to the end of the 1980s. As for the Taliban leadership, it simply cannot overlook the religious sanctity attached to the Custodian of the Two Holy Places.
All in all, while the Taliban feels emboldened by the developments since the Abu Dhabi talks, the upcoming talks in Saudi Arabia will be crucial, as they will set the tempo of the peace talks at a juncture when there are distinct signs that the 17-year conflict is set to conclude.
The bottom line is that the Taliban (and Pakistan) would know that it is unrealistic to hope to capture power and, importantly, to retain it without the cooperation and support of the western powers, especially the US.
Having said that, time is running out for the Trump administration, too. The postponement of the Afghan presidential election (originally scheduled for April) will deepen political uncertainties in Kabul. And this is happening at a time when the Taliban has proved its mettle in the battlefield and is in control of vast areas of the country. Over and above, there is the near-certainty that POTUS might order a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan at some point through 2019.
Interestingly, the White House has refuted the media leak regarding a unilateral troop drawdown in Afghanistan. “The President [Trump] has not made a determination to drawdown US military presence in Afghanistan and he has not directed the Department of Defense to begin the process of withdrawing US personnel from Afghanistan,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg.
The crisply worded clarification leaves the door open for a future decision by Trump on the issue.