Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have resumed in the Qatari capital Doha after weeks of delays, escalating violence and a change in US diplomatic leadership as the Biden administration began.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted on Monday night the resumption of the talks, which were the outcome of an agreement between the Afghan armed group and the US in February 2020.
But the administration of President Joe Biden is reviewing the agreement, which was aimed at ending the longest war the US has fought. The Taliban has been fighting the combined forces of the Western-backed Kabul government and foreign troops since it was toppled in a US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Last week, the Taliban in an open letter called on the US to fully implement the Doha accord, including the withdrawal of all international troops, saying it had committed to its side of the deal – to secure US security interests in the war-torn country.
There were no details about the talks except for an announcement that the first item of business would be setting the agenda.
When talks ended abruptly in January, days after they began, both sides submitted their wish lists for agendas which they now have to sift through to agree on negotiation items and the order in which they will be tackled.
The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and NATO is a serious reduction in violence that can lead to a ceasefire, the Taliban have until now resisted any immediate ceasefire.
Washington is reviewing the Doha peace agreement the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban as consensus mounts in Washington that a delay of the withdrawal deadline is needed. The Taliban have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension.
There has been a suggestion of a smaller intelligence-based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on ‘counterterrorism’ and an increasingly active and deadly ISIL (ISIS) affiliate in eastern Afghanistan.
But neither Washington nor NATO has yet announced a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 foreign troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still stationed in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the troops from the transatlantic alliance would not withdraw from Afghanistan “before the time is right”, adding that the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of the agreement with the US.
The Biden administration, which has emphasised a political solution to the protracted conflict, retained US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the US agreement with the Taliban but has until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward on Afghanistan.
The resumption in talks in Doha comes on the heels of hectic diplomatic activity, including reaching out to Pakistani officials and its powerful Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Pakistan is seen as critical to getting the Taliban back to the negotiating table, and it can use its influence to pressure the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan.
Last week, the head of US Central Command, General Kenneth F McKenzie, was in Islamabad, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Afghan envoy, Zamir Kabulov and Qatari foreign ministry special envoy Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy Umar Daudzai is expected in Islamabad on Wednesday.
While details of the meetings have been sketchy, Afghanistan featured prominently and officials familiar with the talks said a reduction of violence and eventual ceasefire dominated discussions.