Habib Wayand

The first official face-to-face talks between the representatives of the Government of Afghanistan (GoA) and Tehrik-e Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) took place in Murree, Pakistan on July 7. The Murree meeting has been called an important first step towards reconciliation and has renewed the possibility of a political settlement in Afghanistan for the first time in the last fourteen years. The Taliban had many times agreed to talk with the Americans, but until now they have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government. The Murree gathering comes after a series of informal interactions between the two groups in China, Norway, Dubai and Doha, though many were denied by the TTA.

The significance of the Murree meeting is not only that the two sides sent authorized representatives. It is that the other key stakeholders, China and the United States, as well as the senior leaders of the Taliban and Haqqani network, attended the meeting. Reportedly, both sides have agreed to hold another round of talks after Ramadan in which they will possibly discuss a ceasefire. It is reported that the second round might be held in China, and will be led by Salahudin Rabbani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan and the Chief of High Peace Council (HPC).

Representatives from the GoA and the Insurgent groups

The Afghan government sent a sizeable delegation to ensure that all major Afghan power groups were represented. They were led by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalil Hekmat Karzai, and included Haji Din Mohammad and Farhadullah from the HPC, Faizullah Zaki (the head of the First Vice President's Office), Asadullah Sadati (representing the Second Vice President's Office), Eng. Muhammad Asem (representative of the Chief Executive), and Mohammad Natiqi (representing the Second Deputy Chief Executive, of the GoA).

The Taliban delegation was represented both by the Qatar office and the main political Shura. They sent a number of influential leaders, including Mullah Abbas Durrani, Mullah Abdul Latif Mansoor and Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund.  Durrani was once Minister of under the old Taliban regime, while Mansoor served as the Minister of Agriculture and held other several political and military positions, Akhund previously held the governorship of Kandahar while Haji Ibrahim, who was also present, is a senior leader of the Haqqani Network, and brother of the group’s chief, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The composition of the delegations indicates that both sides mean business.

Demands laid by the Tehrik-e Taliban Afghanistan (TTA)

Taliban representatives argued that a national unity government could be formed if China and Pakistan guarantee the peace process, and announced that the following terms had to be agreed upon before serious talks could begin.

  • That all Taliban members in US or Afghan custody be released, including those imprisoned in Guantanamo;
  • That the names of Taliban leaders be removed from the UN black list, restricting their movements;
  • That all international forces leave Afghanistan;
  • And that all outstanding amendments to the Afghan constitution be resolved

Prospects and challenges to the current peace talks

While world leaders welcomed the Murree meeting and acknowledged the importance of the talks, some Afghan experts are skeptical. Several recent successes on the battlefield and high-profile attacks in Kabul and other major cities lead many to believe that peace is still far away. There is also considerable skepticism concerning the commitment to peace amongst the entire Taliban delegation. Taliban leadership has struggled to maintain unity between the various Taliban factions operating from outside the country and the field commanders inside Afghanistan, compounding worries about actual prospects for peace.

Adding to the concern, the Taliban spokesman for the group’s Qatar Office announced that no member of its office was present for the talks, suggesting a possible split between the Qatar Office and the Taliban’s Shura in Pakistan. This shouldn’t be overlooked. The role of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar is important for any fruitful talks and the Taliban leadership has long been insisting the Qatar office be assigned the task of pursuing political affairs.

Women's rights activists have expressed concerns that the Taliban does not endorse women's civil liberties. They are worried that women's achievements in the country since the Taliban were booted from power could be sacrificed in the talks. The Taliban, however, confirmed taking part last month in informal talks hosted by Norway with an Afghan delegation that was reportedly made up entirely of women. And at another round of informal meetings in Qatar in May, activists said Taliban delegates pledged support for women's education and their right to work in “male-dominated professions.”

Despite some of these road bumps and criticism, some see hope. The Murree meeting will give a boost to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has made peace talks a key component of his government’s policy, and his own legacy. President Ghani’s strategy of reconciliation with Pakistan had provoked intense criticism from both his political opponents and his allies. The spread of the insurgency to the Northern provinces has given more ammunition to the president’s critics. For the time being, though, the president will have won himself some much-needed political space at home.

Daunting obstacles remain in the path of peace building.  The problem of ISIS, for one, looms large . The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the east and south of Afghanistan has threatened all sides at the negotiating table. Indeed, the appearance of ISIS may have induced the Taliban to talk, given the recent targeting and brutal killing of core TIA commanders in the field. If the Taliban senses that they are losing ground to ISIS in areas such as Nangarhar province, their own operations—as well as the peace talks themselves—could be thrown into great doubt. But for the moment, at least, the talks continue.

Rhetoric will have to give way to tangible actions that both sides will be required to take as the peace process advances. Reconciliation is a process and will not happen in one or two meetings.  Therefore, both sides—not to mention analysts and onlookers—must be patient. This Murree talks may have broken the ice, but there is a long way to go before the two sides engage in serious and substantive peace negotiations.

Habib Wayand is a Yale World Fellow and a freelance political and security analyst. He can be contacted at habibwayand@gmail.com.