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US-Taliban peace deal – so near, yet so far

Masood Saifullah
January 30, 2020

US and Taliban negotiators have held several rounds of peace talks in Qatar, with both sides claiming progress. There could be a peace deal within days, but a single mishap could also derail the entire process.

A US soldier in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hossaini

In theory, a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict is not so difficult to achieve and all the main parties to the conflict agree on the need for a political settlement.

However, finding a solution every one can agree on has proven to be an almost unattainable task.

The US wants to keep several thousand troops in Afghanistan even after it signs a peace deal. The Taliban demands that all US soldiers exit the country; and the Afghan government insists that the US troop withdrawal should be conditional.

Read more: Germany insists Afghan government must be involved in Taliban talks

Washington and Kabul also want a complete ceasefire in Afghanistan during peace negotiations. The Taliban agreed to a reduction in violence, but the US and Afghanistan demand a complete halt.

Taliban attacks against US and Afghan forces have continued despite the Islamist group's ongoing negotiations with the US in Doha, Qatar. Last year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the talks after a Taliban-claimed suicide attack killed a NATO soldier in Afghanistan. At the time, US and Taliban negotiators in Doha were very close to signing a peace agreement.

US-Taliban deal 'won't be fruitful' without Kabul being on board

Negotiations have now resumed, with both sides making claims of progress. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson for the group's Doha office, said that the discussion about the deal's signing ceremony had been held.

But a peace agreement to determine Afghanistan's future political course still remains elusive.

Read more: Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen: 'We had finalized a peace deal with Americans'

New complications

The Afghan peace process remains fragile and uncertain despite several rounds of talks between Washington and the Taliban in Qatar. A single major attack in Afghanistan has the potential to derail the entire process, say experts.

A US military plane recently crashed in Afghanistan's eastern province of Ghazni. The Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting it down, although the Pentagon rejected the claim. While the incident may not result in a complete breakdown of US-Taliban negotiations, it has still complicated the peace process.

"US-Taliban talks have continued over the last year despite the fact that more US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2019 than in any year since 2014," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

"While President Trump may talk tough and threaten to halt talks when the Taliban kills American troops, in the end, the talks have continued each time over the last year, albeit with some occasional pauses," he added.

Read more: Why a Taliban peace deal won't end bloodshed in Afghanistan

Taliban claimed they shot down a US military plane in Ghazni province
Taliban claimed they shot down a US military plane in Ghazni provinceImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/Saifullah

Experts also say that the Taliban attacks on Afghan and US security forces are not the only major issue; a lack of coordination between Afghan and US officials — and also among Afghan authorities — is also affecting the peace process.

"There is still no clarity as to who will talk to the Taliban from the Afghan government," Shahla Farid, a former member of the Afghan Peace Council, told DW. "Also, Afghan officials don't know what they want to negotiate with the Taliban," she added.

Read more: US-Taliban talks: DW reporters' firsthand account from Doha

Bigger challenges ahead

Experts warn that a more difficult phase in the peace talks is yet to come.

"It's a lot of hurrying up and waiting. Still, I do think that a deal between the US and the Taliban would be the easy part. The big challenge will be pivoting from a US-Taliban deal to a formal peace process among Afghans," Kugelman said, adding that there is a lot of confusion about what an intra-Afghan dialogue would look like, how it would be structured, and who would be at the negotiations table.

"It's little wonder that historically talks like these involving insurgents and nation states tend to take years, not months, because there is so much to work out in negotiations," Kugelman added.

Experts also say that if negotiations with the Taliban do not yield substantial results soon, President Trump could lose patience and withdraw US troops without a deal, abandoning a weak government in Kabul.

Read more: Afghanistan's Ghani wins contested presidential election: preliminary results

"In that scenario, the people in Afghanistan will suffer, as the country could plunge into another civil war," said Farid.

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