On 5 January, a Taliban delegation held a meeting with Afghan officials in Moscow to discuss their country’s future. “We are exchanging our views. So this is the first step which we are taking towards peace and inshallah (God willing) in the future we will have more meetings,” said the head of the Taliban delegation, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai.
Progress, Slowly but Surely
According to reports, senior Afghan politicians, all representatives of the political opposition, and a Taliban delegation held “fruitful” talks about the adoption of a new constitution, interim government and women’s rights at the Kremlin-hosted meeting.
Regarding what a segue government would look like, Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful personality in Afghan politics and former governor of Balkh province, brought up the possibility of a temporary ruling body that includes the Taliban. “The interim government will help find a way for a transparent election,” he said, referring to presidential elections scheduled for July.
While not committing to any point explicitly, the Taliban representatives expressed flexibility on core issues such as maintaining the progress on women’s issues in the country. The most important demand of the Taliban is the full withdrawal of foreign troops, a point they are not willing to budge on. The possibility of maintaining any U.S. forces in the country for the long term has been repeatedly rejected by the group’s leadership.
There are some strong indications the U.S. administration is willing to concede on this. Taliban officials recently claimed the Americans had agreed to remove half of their forces in just a couple months. For now, the U.S. government denies any timeline for a pullout has been agreed to. But the persistent allusions by Trump to a withdrawal from Afghanistan strongly indicate that something akin to this has at least been mentioned by U.S. negotiators to their Taliban counterparts.
Afghan Peace Talks Without the Afghans
The recent talks marked the first time ever that the Taliban met with Afghan policymakers. And those in attendance weren’t merely token representatives. Even former President Hamid Karzai came to meet face to face with the men whom he had once waged war against.
But more notable than those who were present were those who were not. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani dismissed the Moscow talks, saying the Afghans attending carried no negotiating authority. “Where is their executive power?” he asked in an interview with Afghan media. “Let hundreds of such meetings be held, but these would only be paper (agreements) unless there is an agreement by the Afghan government, Afghanistan’s national assembly and Afghanistan’s legal institutions,” he said.
Ghani is technically correct. His opponents who flew to Moscow do not have the ability to make any binding deal. However, the Afghan president can’t deny the political implications of these talks as they clearly show the rapport-building and commitment both sides have to negotiating and bringing the fighting to an end. Ghani may want to avoid this fact as it may eventually force him and his ministers to actively reach out to the Taliban, an organization that considers his government a puppet regime of the West.