The Afghan Taliban are hoping for “clear and fruitful results” out of the current round of negotiations with U.S. officials in Doha that started Monday morning, according to Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban team.
He added that the discussion was supposed to revolve around the same two issues that both sides have recognized as the core issues in ending the 17-year conflict: withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and ensuring that Afghan soil is not used by any terrorist group or individual for attacks against America and its allies.
Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founding members of Taliban who was released from Pakistani custody in October of last year and appointed the head of the Taliban political office in Qatar last month, has also arrived in Doha.
Shaheen said Baradar would participate in the “introductory meeting” Monday, not clarifying whether he would sit out the rest of the negotiations. However, the Taliban have said in the past that Baradar does not need to personally participate because he has already announced a negotiating team.
The Taliban team, announced earlier this month, has 14 members, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani. The network is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has indicated it is not planning to free Anas, who is on death row.
The Taliban claim he was a student and had no military role, but Afghan intelligence calls him a “mastermind” of social media propaganda for the Taliban. Many analysts think his inclusion in the negotiating team is a way to build pressure on the Afghan government to release him.
The American team is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who has made multiple tours of the region since he was first appointed in September last year to help find a negotiated end to the conflict. He has engaged directly with almost all countries with a stake in Afghanistan except Iran.
After the last round of talks in Doha that lasted six days, the Taliban and the U.S. set up working groups to negotiate and find solutions on the two core issues. Shaheen said the groups will come up with “recommendations and a draft agreement.”
The current conflict in Afghanistan, which started in 2001, has already turned into America’s longest war and many in Washington who are close to the current administration have indicated that President Donald Trump’s patience with the status quo is running thin.
“My original instinct was to pull out—and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said when announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan in 2017.
However, fearing a hasty withdrawal would create “a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida would instantly fill,” he pushed hard to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table by giving his generals more battlefield authority on one hand and increasing pressure on neighboring Pakistan on the other. The U.S. has long accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to the Taliban—a charge Islamabad denies.
The first breakthrough in the current process happened last July when U.S. officials gave in to a major Taliban demand—to negotiate directly with them, without the Kabul administration in the room.
Since then, while the U.S. side has continued negotiating with the Taliban, it has also pushed hard to get them to engage with President Ashraf Ghani’s team. The militant group continues to refuse, even as its representatives met with dozens of other Afghan political leaders, former jihadi commanders, and civil society activists at a recent conference in Moscow.
Speaking at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, Khalilzad said the Taliban did not want to give Ghani a boost before the upcoming presidential elections and were more likely to “sit with the government in a multi-party arrangement.”