Anyone observing the situation in Afghanistan today would be justified in stating that, despite US-Taliban agreements; talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan Government in Qatar; expressions from all sides of their desire for an end to conflict and the establishment of peace, the reality is that peace remains as elusive as ever.

There remains a gulf between what the Afghan government and the US want and, on the other hand, what the Taliban are determined to achieve. The Afghan government’s and the US primary objective is to get a ceasefire in place. The Taliban are more concerned with the release of 7000 prisoners in addition to those already released and the restoration of an Islamic State in Afghanistan.

The choice of Abdul Hakim as the head of the Taliban negotiating team points to the Islamic aspects of a future Afghanistan being central to the Taliban game plan. Hakim is an Islamic scholar respected within the Taliban and his time as a lecturer at a ­madrassa in Quetta, Pakistan, where he instructed many within the group’s senior ranks.

While American diplomats confirmed that the figure of 7000 finds mention in the February 2020 agreement between the USA and the Taliban, President Ghani was not ready to accede to this demand with the Members of the Afghan Parliament also opposing any such move. The fear based on earlier instances was that those Taliban who were released would end up on the battlefield.

The Taliban had however dismissed comments from Edmund Fitton-Brown the coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Daesh, al-Qaida and the Taliban that senior figures from Al Qaeda remained in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives. The Taliban had reiterated that they would not allow any group including al-Qaeda to exploit and use Afghanistan’s territory against other nations.

In terms of specifics Mullah Baradar the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha had succinctly spelt out the Taliban agenda. At the Heart of Asia Society’s 7th session he had said that the Taliban had the will to solve Afghanistan's conflict through negotiations. But also made it clear that the next political system of Afghanistan should be an inclusive and an Islamic one. It would fight drug smuggling and production, maintain good ties with neighbors and seek international assistance for Afghanistan in line with the Islamic laws. He also said that it would ensure the protection of public utility infrastructures, Afghanistan’s bilateral relations with all other nations in line with the Islamic principles. It would also protect women’s rights and media rights- a declaration greeted with a fair amount of scepticism given the Taliban’s past performance.

The peace process which started in September 2020 had been marked by some hiccups. Ghani’s refusal to agree to the release the 7000 prisoners had made the Taliban question his sincerity in building a peace agreement on the basis of the US-Taliban deal. When the modalities for negotiations were being worked out the Taliban had backed off because the preamble to the document referred to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the official name of the country, which was unacceptable to the Taliban who did not consider the Ghani government legitimate and had not conceded that the talks with the Afghan negotiators in Doha were actually with the government of Afghanistan.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, signed in February 2020 also did not mention the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan by name either and envisaged the formation of a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations”.The Taliban wanted the nomenclature The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and this squabble over the terms “republic” and “emirate” had led to a delay in signing the agreement that would take the peace process forward. They also demanded that there be a caretaker administration in Afghanistan based on their refusal to officially deal with the Ghani Government.

Subsequently the peace process was said to have had a breakthrough with the Taliban’s spokesman in Doha, Mohammad Naeem, stating that negotiators from both sides had on November 15 agreed on procedural rules. Both the Taliban and the government’s negotiating team confirming that the procedure for negotiations including the preamble had been finalised and the negotiations on the agenda for the talks would begin.

According to media reports a transcript of the 21 procedural rules suggested that the talks would be based on the US-Taliban peace agreement; the Afghan people’s aspiration for peace; a commitment by the two sides for a durable peace; and the demand of the UN for durable peace in Afghanistan . The two sides had agreed inter alia that there would be mutual respect and patience during the negotiations; working groups would be set up to resolve issues; disagreements would be settled according to the Sharia by the joint delegation of the two sides; there would be a written record of the discussions; and the media would be given a statement agreed by the two sides.

But President Ghani’s spokesperson denied that progress had been made in the peace talks between negotiators of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and said the deadlock remained. The latest reports said that the two sides had held three rounds of meetings to discuss the agenda for the negotiations and were taking a break. The next round of talks would take place in the first week of January 2021.

The Taliban had made it clear that they would continue with their offensive against the Afghan armed forces until a final settlement was reached. Even as the principles for negotiations and the nomenclature for addressing the Afghan government were being haggled over, the Taliban attacked the centres of nearly 50 provinces coming under attack. Among them were Uruzgan, Kandahar, Helmand, Farah, Nimroz, Herat, Badghis, Faryab, Jawzjan, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Samangan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan-with most attacks talking place after the start of peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban in September 2020 in Doha.

And the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) had highlighted in a quarterly report to the US Congress on November 5 that violent attacks in Afghanistan had surged by 50 percent over recent months. SIGAR also said that there had been 2,561 civilian casualties this quarter, including 876 deaths, up 43 percent from the April to June period.

There had been many fatalities among the security, intelligence and police personnel and senior provincial leaders in different provinces had been targeted. There continued to be rocket and suicide attacks and in Kabul Vice President Amarullah Saleh had escaped an attack in September 2020. There had been an escalation in the casualties suffered by the media with some well know individuals including TOLO news presenter Yama Siawash and Ilias Daee, a Radio Azadi reporter Malala Maiwand, a journalist at Enikass TV and Radio being killed.

Islamic State had also claimed responsibility for some attacks including the one at Kabul University that killed 22 people including students. Islamic State claimed that they had killed and injured 80 Afghan judges, investigators and security personnel who had gathered on completion of a training programme.

The Taliban had welcomed President Trump’s decision that the number of American troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to 2500 by January 2021. The US was said to have closed at least 10 bases across Afghanistan since the signing of a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that in addition to two larger bases, the United States would also keep “several satellite bases.”

CNN reported that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz was being moved back into the Persian Gulf region along with other warships to provide combat support and air cover as US troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan by January 15.

American officials and NATO had expressed anxiety about what this might mean for the future. Retired General McMaster told “Face the Nation” that the president had “paradoxically doubled down on all the flaws of the Obama administration approach to Afghanistan, by conjuring up the enemy we would prefer, instead of the actual enemy that we are facing,”. He said the prioritization of withdrawal over American interests had led to actually empowering the Taliban.

He called Trump’s plan abhorrent. From NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had warned of a “high price” if Western allies pulled troops out of Afghanistan too quickly, saying it could allow Islamic State militants to regroup. He said Afghanistan risked becoming again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on “our homelands”. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq. And from Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah head of the High Council for National Reconciliation had said the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan should be dependent on the progress in the peace efforts with the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s economy was in dire need of reconstruction and rehabilitation and a recent poll by The Institute of War and Peace Studies found people’s optimism about the future had dropped to 57% in October 18 as compared to 87% being optimistic just a couple of months ago.. Dozens of donor nations and multilateral institutions had met every four years to pledge billions of dollars that funded roughly three-quarters of the Afghan government’s budget. The aid was largely pledged to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), a World Bank-managed fund that financed vital programmes.

At the last conference in Brussels four years ago donors had pledged $15.2 billion in aid to support Afghanistan between 2017-2020, an equivalent to $3.8 billion per year. This year a virtual conference of donors in Geneva had agreed to only 12 billion dollars for the period 2021 t0 2024. The support came with 10 conditions that included interalia commitment to democracy; ensuring good governance, providing quality services to all citizens and promoting stability; gender equality; respect for Afghanistan’s international commitments; and ensuring meaningful participation of women, youth, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, urban and rural voices in the negotiation of a peace agreement.

The two sides are to meet again on January 5, 2021. The Afghan Government wants this round to be held inside Afghanistan based on the Taliban’s choice of venue. It seems highly unlikely that the Taliban would agree since any such move would in effect be a recognition of the current Afghan government. The Taliban are very clearly negotiating from a position of strength. They now control or hold sway over half the country, and are at their most powerful since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. In all likelihood if the Islamic Emirate does not materialize they would continue the war of attrition even while negotiating. Their agenda has not wavered and if indeed the Americans go home with other allies following despite their apprehensions, the Taliban, as President Donald Trump himself has said, could end up controlling Kabul.

Cover Photograph: Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images