For now, these peace negotiations’ prospects of success are far from clear: American forces are still carrying out targeted strikes and aerial bombardment of Taliban positions; key regional players (notably Pakistan) will have a role to play in any final settlement; and while the Taliban, in an effort to secure the withdrawal of American troops, has reportedly pledged to ensure that Afghanistan will not be a base for international terrorist groups, how the United States will enforce that agreement is an open question.
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Still, efforts to resolve similar conflicts typically involve both the government and the main rebel group—even if, at first, the two sides are talking through an intermediary. That is not happening in this case. Kabul’s absence in this process is remarkable. It would be akin to George Mitchell negotiating directly with Irish republicans while cutting the British government out of the process that resulted in peace in Northern Ireland.
And whatever its final result, Ghani is worried that the U.S.-led effort, especially, is being rushed; that Washington is cutting him out; and that the end result will be a premature withdrawal of American troops. There is good reason for his concern. The Taliban might be making assurances to Khalilzad and to its interlocutors in Moscow, but it is unclear whether those guarantees are acceptable to the Afghan government.
“We sense a lot of anxiety in the [presidential] palace,” Borhan Osman, an Afghanistan-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said in an email.
President Trump told CBS this month that he wanted “to bring our great troops home” after more than 18 years of fighting, but in both Kabul and Washington, there is concern that a precipitous withdrawal will send Afghanistan into a tailspin.
The president’s State of the Union speech last week—in which he left open the possibility that a small portion of the 11,000 American soldiers currently in Afghanistan would remain there to focus on counterterrorism—should assuage that concern somewhat, but it won’t do much for Ghani’s feeling of being cut out. In his speech, Trump specifically named the Taliban as a group the United States was talking with, while referring to Washington’s other interlocutors, presumably including the government, as “a number of Afghan groups.” (Roya Rahmani, the Afghan envoy to the United States, said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week that Kabul wasn’t interpreting the speech as official U.S. policy, but as a platform for Trump to discuss his plans.)
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There are other reasons for concern on the part of Afghanistan: The U.S. State Department’s own language about talks with the Taliban has undergone a subtle shift in the period since Khalilzad assumed his position. During the Obama years and until at least November 2018, it referred to an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. Those words no longer appear in briefings or statements. When asked at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, why the Afghan government wasn’t a part of the process, Khalilzad said that the dialogue was not at the stage where the government could talk directly with the Taliban, and that “a formula” was still needed for the vaunted “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led [process] to really take place.” (On Sunday, Khalilzad began a two-week trip to Europe, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to meet his counterparts in the peace process. A State Department statement said that he will “consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip.”)