With the United States aiming for a potential deal with the Afghan Taliban by September, analysts and Afghan officials are skeptical that a comprehensive deal could be reached when the Afghan government has yet to hold direct talks with the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month, during his visit to Afghanistan and the region, that the U.S. is hoping for a peace deal in Afghanistan before Sept. 1.
“I hope we have a peace deal before Sept. 1st. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo told reporters in Kabul.
“We have made real progress and are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” Pompeo added.
But some experts charge that expecting a comprehensive deal by September is “unrealistic.”
“It is quite unrealistic, to say the least, to think that there can be a comprehensive deal by Sept. 1,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center, a global policy research group.
“To get a full agreement that also involves a cease-fire and political settlement? You’d need a minor miracle to get all that by September,” Kugleman added.
Kugleman did, however, say that a deal could be reached with the Taliban on U.S. troop withdrawal.
“I do think a troop withdrawal deal could happen by September, because that’s the easy part and that’s where much of the progress has been up to now,” he said.
Pompeo also said the U.S. has made it clear to the Taliban that the United States is prepared to remove its forces from Afghanistan, but stressed that the U.S. has not “agreed to a timetable to do so.”
Jason H. Campbell, a policy researcher at the Washington-based think tank Rand Corporation, charges there seems to be conflicting messages going out by the administration to the Taliban and regional stakeholders that could sow confusion.
“I think that creates some level of confusion and perhaps uncomfortable feelings on the part of the Afghans who have long been at least somewhat suspicious that the United States may seek just a bilateral agreement with the Taliban,” Campbell said, referring to the long-standing position of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for the Afghan reconciliation.
Remarks by Khalilzad, who wants the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government before a deal could be made, seem to differ from Pompeo’s recent remarks about a potential deal being within reach.
“I do not believe that’s the case right now but … in public statements how deliberate you are with your words matters, and if you do not account for some of the sensitivities that have built up … I think you are opening yourself up for a persistent confusion that can again send mixed signals,” Campbell added.
Idrees Rahmani, a U.S.-based expert on Afghanistan, however, believes that sending mixed signals to your adversary is a normal thing in negotiations as certainty would allow the other side to take advantage of you.
“So to me both the Taliban and the Americans already know where they are going to end up. They keep playing to see if they can actually shift that position a little bit to one direction or another,” Rahmani said.
Khalilzad has held six rounds of direct talks with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in Qatar’s capital, Doha. He is currently holding the seventh round of talks, which began late last month, and continues with the expectation that a breakthrough might come out of the latest round.
This comes amid another meeting that Germany and Qatar will host Sunday and Monday in Doha, where the Taliban will talk with members of the Afghan civil society and government.
“I want to thank #Germany & #Qatar for agreeing to host the upcoming July 7-8 intra-Afghan Dialogue Conference. This dialogue is an essential element of the four-part peace framework & an important step in advancing the AfghanPeaceProcess,” Khalilzad said in a tweet this past week.
“Mutual acceptance, seeking consensus, and agreeing to resolve political differences without force is what is needed to learn from the tragedy of the last 40 years. I wish participants success,” Khalilzad added.
Afghan government reaction
While Khalilzad has promoted the Germany-Qatar talks as an intra-Afghan Dialogue Conference, the Afghan government made it clear this week that no one would be attending the conference officially on behalf of the Afghan government.
Sediq Seddiqi, spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told VOA the Afghan government would not attend the Doha conference.
“No one from the Afghan government would attend the gathering to represent the Afghan government. We believe that whoever attends the gathering would be doing so in their private capacities,” Seddiqi said.
Some analysts like Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, believe that a deadline could actually help streamline the peace talks.
“I don’t think a September timeline is of much concern. If anything, it could encourage or speed up greater dialogue between Taliban, U.S. and informal Afghan representatives. It may also encourage the Afghan government to ensure that the election is finally carried out,” Dearing said.
Dearing added that holding the elections should be prioritized because it would give a stronger mandate to the Afghan government.
“A mandate from the Afghan people for Ghani or a different president could give that person significant populist leverage over any potential peace deal, particularly one that gives undeserved power to the Taliban,” Dearing said.
The Afghan government is expected to hold the country’s long-awaited presidential elections by the end of September, which were initially to be held by April.
Some experts believe the September deadline is tied to U.S. domestic politics.
“Secretary Pompeo’s statement on the prospect of reaching a peace deal with the Taliban before September is partly influenced by other diplomatic setbacks that the Trump administration has endured, mainly in dealing with North Korea and Iran,” Tabish Frough, a Washington-based analyst, said.
“In the administration, there is a sense of urgency for delivering something tangible, perhaps, a foreign policy achievement that President [Donald] Trump could sell to his political base and constituents before the presidential race in 2020,” Frough added.
Rahmani, however, maintains the window of opportunity might be closing on the Taliban.
“If the U.S has plans to go to war with Iran, they would give more concessions to the Taliban, and if Americans scratch that plan and the war with Iran is off the table, then the Taliban might lose the leverage,” he said.