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Why a US-Taliban agreement is likely

Masood Saifullah
January 25, 2019

As US-Taliban talks in Qatar enter their fifth day, prospects for Washington reaching an agreement with the insurgent group have improved. Sources close to the talks say both sides could find common ground on key issues.

Afghanistan Konflikt l US-Army
Image: Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar

US President Donald Trump's administration sent veteran Afghan-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to Afghanistan with a clear mission: Finding an end to America's 17-year-long war with the Taliban.

His ongoing extended meeting with the group's representatives in Doha, which entered its fifth day on Friday, has raised hopes for an agreement between the two sides. A Taliban member in Qatar, who did not want to be named as he was not authorized to talk to media, told DW that talks focused on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban's commitment to cut ties with terrorist groups.

Read more: 'More than 100' killed in Taliban attack in central Afghanistan

Other sources in Kabul, however, told DW that both sides have already agreed on these key issues and current discussions are focused on the next stages, including a ceasefire and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

It seems likely that US negotiators may have shown a green light to the Taliban on the issue of US troop withdrawal. In December, US media reported that President Trump was planning to withdraw half of his country's almost 14,000 troops from Afghanistan. Since then, the White House has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.

An agreement on a US military pullout could break the deadlock that the Afghan peace process has faced for years. The Taliban have continued to demand foreign troops' withdrawal as a pre-condition for entering talks with the Afghan government.

Afghan president calls on Taliban to join in peace talks

What has happened so far:

— US special envoy Khalilzad has held at least four meetings with Taliban representatives in recent months.

— The ongoing US-Taliban meeting in Doha, which started on Monday, is the longest of such meetings.

— Khalilzad has visited Pakistan and other countries in the region to secure regional support for a potential US-Taliban agreement.

— The Taliban have appointed the group's co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the new head of their political office in Qatar.

— The insurgent group killed over 100 Afghan security forces in the central province of Wardak this week, despite meeting with US representatives.

Katar Taliban Büro in Doha
The Taliban office in Doha when it was opened in 2013Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/O. Faisal

'An unprecedented chance'

Since announcing his strategy for South Asia in August 2017, President Trump has increased pressure on Pakistan due to Islamabad's reluctance in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. The Trump administration has also held back over a $1 billion (€880 million) in aid to Pakistan.

Read more: Opinion: Lacking strategy, Donald Trump fights on in Afghanistan

It seems the US pressure has paid off to some extent as both US and Pakistani officials have softened their tones.

"Right now, the Taliban, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and almost every regional stakeholder are on the same page," Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in a DW interview, adding that his country was trying to facilitate the dialogue.

"Hopefully, this will be a game-changer for the region," he said.

Pakistan Islamabad US-Senator Lindsey Graham
US Senator Lindsey Graham at the US embassy in Islamabad, PakistanImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Quershi

While Pakistan has failed to deliver on such promises in the past, recent developments indicate that the country is willing to reset its difficult relations with the US. As a sign of improved ties, US Senator Lindsey Graham, who was in Islamabad on Sunday, said that "things have moved in a positive direction."

In Afghanistan, the government has repeatedly called on the Taliban to enter into direct peace talks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has even offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and hold talks on the Afghan constitution. Since taking office in 2014, Ghani has consistently said that peace talks are the only way to end the Afghan war. The Afghan president, however, insists that peace talks should be both "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned."

He has strongly opposed a peace deal that does not include his government as one of the main negotiating sides. But once the talks in Doha conclude, sources have told DW, the Taliban are likely to agree to negotiate with Kabul.

Read more: Foreign Minister Qureshi: Pakistan, US on 'same page' over Afghanistan

Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on the Taliban, told AFP news agency that the continuation of the talks in Qatar represented "unprecedented" progress.

"I have never seen anything like this before," he said.

President Trump's governing style focuses more on US domestic politics than on the nation's global role. This makes an agreement between the Taliban and the US more likely now than at any other time.

His recent decision to withdraw all American troops from Syria indicates that he could make the same decision in Afghanistan. However, his negotiators must receive assurances from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used against the US and its allies.