The first round of talks between American officials and Taliban leaders after the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan were held in the Qatari capital this week. This time talks are different from previous rounds in negotiations in that the delegations are not made up of the same people who piloted negotiations during the Donald Trump presidency and concluded it under Jo Biden. In addition, the agenda took a totally different shape.
The Taliban is ruling Afghanistan after more than two decades of American military presence there, a fact that stands regardless of American and international recognition of the government in Kabul.
The Taliban delegation to Doha had more ambitious goals than talking to the Americans, however. Led by Afghanistan’s Acting Foreign Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, they met Qatari officials, European Union representatives and several foreign ambassadors to Qatar. The obvious target was to explain the movement’s positions and try to secure recognition of its government in Kabul. According to a source in Doha, it is not yet clear how Western diplomats received the implied request to convey to their governments the idea that “the Taliban have changed.”
Recognition, especially by Western capitals, is important to the Taliban as it is needed to secure United Nations acceptance of them as the rulers representing Afghanistan internationally. Moreover, the movement – branded a terrorist organisation for the last two decades – now acknowledges the difficulty of running a country without dealing with the outside world. It requires commercial and economic relations that are almost impossible to achieve without political recognition.
Despite the need to convince the world that it has changed, abandoning its terrorist orientation, the Taliban sent a “militant hardliner delegation to Doha”, as some analysts point out. The delegation included Information and Culture Minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, the Director of Intelligence Mullah Abdulhaq Wasiq, Interior Deputy Minister Malwlawi Noor Jalal and Haji Mohammad, in addition to Sheikh Shabuddin Delawar who first established the Doha office under the direction of late Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Most of the delegation members are close aides of the Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The two “godfathers” of US-Taliban negotiations who started dialogue years ago, Taliban leader Mullah Bradar and US special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, were absent. But it is clear that both sides admit that negotiations are not the same as they used to be before August when the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan. US and NATO forces completed their withdrawal from the country by the end of August, while Taliban was in Kabul replacing the falling US-backed government of president Ashraf Ghani.
The American delegation, which included Intelligence Services and the Department of State representatives, was led by Khalilzad’s deputy Tom West and the USAID Chief Sarah Charles. In itself this indicates that the Americans are ready to talk about assistance to Afghanistan in return for Taliban’s commitment to allow the US to operate in the country in such a way as to guarantee that it doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists targeting US interests again.
The Taliban wants the US to honour the 2020 agreement it signed in Doha by removing sanctions and unfreezing Afghan Central Bank assets worth over nine billion dollars, which international financial institutions such as IMF have suspended Afghanistan’s access to triggering a liquidity crunch. Many Taliban leaders including current ministers are still blacklisted by the UN and the US, what is more, and the Taliban wants them removed from terrorist lists.
For their part the Americans want leaders from the previous government to be part of an “inclusive” group, along with representatives of other groups alongside the Taliban. They also require Taliban concessions on women’s rights and access for American military and intelligence to target armed groups such as the IS affiliate ISKP (the Islamic State in Khorasan Province).
This new track of negotiations might take longer to reach a compromise. Reuters quoted US official sources as saying: “This meeting is not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy. We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban’s own actions. They need to establish a sustained track record.”
This first round of talks might only achieve one thing: demonstrating America is not completely decoupled from the Afghanistan quagmire. Former National Security Adviser to the Trump administration John Bolton wrote an article for The Hill in which he said, “we may have left Afghanistan, but it has not left us. And neither have the terrorists.”
Bolton wrote: “The Taliban provided ample evidence that it had neither modernised nor moderated, naming no women to its new government. Al-Qaeda proved to be more numerous and more integrated into the Taliban than even the worst-case United Nations and other studies indicated. Terrorists across the Middle East took heart from the Taliban’s ‘victory’, and foreign jihadists began returning to Afghanistan. Reports of retaliation and barbarism by Taliban fighters emerged from the few Western journalists still in country.”
He sums up: “The key conclusion today is that the consequences of the Afghanistan withdrawal are far from over, and events there and in the miasma of global terrorism will continue to command our attention. Biden will not be able to take a victory lap in the 2022 or 2024 elections for having ended one of the endless wars; instead, he will be explaining why America is once again more vulnerable to terrorism.”
Whether the Taliban has changed or not, there is a new situation in Afghanistan that the world must deal with. It will take time to formulate an international position and how the Americans see the Taliban in power will be instrumental to formulating that position.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly