The prospects for peace and an end to the conflict in Afghanistan appear to be bleaker than ever. The talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan establishment that had begun in September 2020 had remained inconclusive given the differing priorities of the two sides- with the government side wanting a ceasefire and the Taliban maintaining that a ceasefire could come only after an agreement on a future government.

During the three months the two sides were said to have agreed on procedural rules for the talks and had shared verbally their demands for agenda points. .After a three week break the talks resumed on January 5, 2021 with the two most important Taliban leaders Mawlavi Abdul Hakim, the Taliban’s chief negotiator and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar absent.

Consequently, nothing of substance was achieved in the discussions which were supposed to deal with contentious issues such as power-sharing and a ceasefire. There had then been a lull with a new President taking office in the USA.

In the third week of February 2021 the Taliban had issued an open letter to the American people urging the United States to abide by its commitment to withdraw US and allied forces from Afghanistan in accordance with the US-Taliban peace deal signed between the two sides in Doha in February 2020.

The letter reiterated the Taliban’s commitment to honour that agreement while specifying that the Afghans would finally agree on an Islamic system and sustainable peace and security through a political settlement. It also said that the Taliban would protect women’s rights.

The letter came in the wake of comments from the new US Administration in official communications to President Ghani that it would be reviewing the February 2020 deal and that the withdrawal of American troops, scheduled as per that agreement to be completed by May 2021, could be delayed since the US Administration would decide on the basis of the ground situation in Afghanistan. Senior NATO officials had said that international troops planned to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline.

President Biden while addressing the Munich Security Conference had said that the US would work together with its allies in Europe and that his administration was fully committed to working with NATO allies on the way forward in Afghanistan. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin had told NATO allies that the United States would not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiator, had said that the presence of US forces after May 2021 would be a violation of the US-Taliban peace agreement and that if the US and NATO did not withdraw by the agreed date then the Taliban would also reassess the situation.

Many political leaders in the USA had warned against an early withdrawal while violence was increasing in Afghanistan. The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group which was set up by Congress in April 2020 had submitted a report that cautioned the Biden administration to slow the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, remove the May 1 exit deadline and reduce the number of troops only as security conditions improved in Afghanistan. The report said that removing international forces by the May 1 deadline set in the US-Taliban peace agreement could lead to a civil war in Afghanistan.

There were some critics of the “delay” approach who felt that If President Biden decided to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan, it would adversely affect the peace process by signaling to the Afghan government that the USA would back it despite the heavy costs and despite its inability to confront the corruption and ineffectiveness that fueled the insurgency. It would embolden Kabul and reduce the chances of compromises to end the war.

The US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had returned to Afghanistan after President Biden approved his continuation in the role. After the month’s lull since the January 2021 round of talks, a meeting was held between heads and some members of the negotiating teams in Doha, after issue of the open letter by the Taliban. The meeting reportedly focused on the continuation of the negotiations. Khalilzad had met the negotiators. Taliban spokesperson Zabibullah Mujahid had said they would hold further meetings soon and that the one month lull was only a break with the Taliban committed to talks.

For the USA and NATO the continuing spike in violence directed at state institutions, security and police personnel, administrators, the media, human rights activists, doctors and judges remained the prime concern and there were reported exhortations to the Taliban to stop the violence. The Taliban denied involvement in some incidents like the killing of women media personnel which was claimed by Islamic State.

The provinces from where violence was reported included Herat, Kapisa, Laghman, Nuristan, Kabul, Zabul, Nangarhar. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan in a report said that at least 11 human rights defenders and media workers were killed in targeted attacks in the country from 12 September 2020 when the peace negotiations started in Doha till 31 January 2021. While US officials conceded that in terms of the February 2020 agreement the Taliban had desisted from attacks on US and NATO forces, they had continued to escalate their attacks on Afghan forces and personnel.

With the USA was deciding its approach for the period ahead the Taliban continued to negotiate from a position of strength. A survey by the Pajhwok News Agency conducted between November 30 to February 3 showed that the Taliban controlled at least 52 percent of the country’s territory while 59 percent of the population lived in areas under the government’s control. The Taliban also remained adamant that meeting some of their major demands-release of their prisoners, removal of their leaders from the UN blacklist- would speed up intra-Afghan peace negotiations.

The Taliban said that they had fulfilled their commitments to the agreement, blaming "the other side" for violating the agreement and said the US had continued its bombings and operations. The Taliban were also adamant that the new system should be an Islamic one with late Mullah Omar’s close aide Sayed Akbar Agha saying that there would not be any need for a ceasefire if the Islamic system was established.

In response to allegations by some in the USA and by Marshall Dostum that the Taliban were still giving refuge to Al Qaeda leaders like Nasruddin, the grandson of Osama Bin Laden, and Saifuddin Haqqani, the son of Sirajuddin Haqqani,the Taliban had issued an order that its members avoid harboring foreign fighters and not allow them to join the Taliban ranks.

The statement read “All heads and mujahedeen are directed to avoid arbitrary move to bring in foreign nationals into their ranks or harbor them…” The fighters were warned that anyone making such an attempt would be removed from their assignments, their group would be dissolved, and they would be referred to the military affairs commission for further punishment.

On the nature of a future system the US chargé d'affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, had said on Twitter that the US was 'not advocating' an interim government in Afghanistan. But there were reports that Zalmay Khalilzad had, in discussions with Afghan leaders, suggested the following options:- first, the continuation of the present government and the inclusion of the Taliban in the govt. Second, the inclusion of the government in the structure of a Taliban-led government. Third, the option to establish an interim and inclusive government.

President Ghani had categorically ruled out the establishment of any interim government. But reports indicated that in his latest talks with Khalilzad he had been receptive to the idea of fresh democratic elections. But he had categorically rule out Khalilzad’s proposal for an interim government arrangement, referred to as a participatory or representative government. Khalilzad had also suggested an international conference on the lines of the 2001 Bonn conference.

The Taliban for their part said they were not opposed to an interim government but would not join it. They said such a government should consist of people they would recommend with a good reputation and the arrangement would need to work for at least two years to depoliticise all the government departments, including the security establishment. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they had not yet seen the plan, but if an alternative to talks in Qatar was sought, “it is doomed to failure.”

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said Khalilzad told him the Doha talks had failed and Hekmatyar had blamed the Ghani government for the failure of the talks. His party the Hizb e Islami had launched protests demanding an end to targeted attacks, an end to the "opposition against peace," respect for the Doha agreement, an agreement on a ceasefire, the transfer of power to a new government, an end to forming militias, the prevention of looting of national treasures and the inclusion of the Hizb-e-Islami group within the government. Hekmatyar said if his demands were not met the protest would be extended to other provinces.

The lull had provided the Russians and the Taliban to up their diplomatic efforts. Taliban delegations had visited Russia and Iran as they had in the past. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban peace negotiating team had said that based on the US-Taliban agreement, the present government of Afghanistan would be dissolved and another government formed based on the intra-Afghan negotiations. It was in this connection that the Taliban delegations had visited Iran and Russia. At a press conference following the meeting in the Iranian capital Tehran, the Taliban delegation made it clear that if the US and NATO forces continued to remain in Afghanistan after May 2021 the Taliban reserved the right to defend their country..

Meanwhile Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar had held talks in Moscow. Based on his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov he said Russia was not in favor of removing the Taliban leaders’ names from the UN blacklist without progress in the Afghan peace talks. Lavrov had also emphasized that the Taliban should enter meaningful talks and should reduce violence significantly. Separately Russian Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov in an interview with Sputnik had said that Moscow preferred that all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan agree on the establishment of an inclusive and transitional coalition government. He said Russia believed that it would be good if there was a transitional coalition government was set up in which the Taliban had political status.

The Taliban had also sent a delegation for discussions to Pakistan. The Director General of Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar had told the media that Pakistan would not support the Taliban, and that Pakistan only wanted enduring peace in Afghanistan with the citizens and the government of Afghanistan to determine the future of the country, how the dialogue process would be moved further, and whom they would support. He said both Afghanistan and Pakistan had changed. There was some scepticism about Pakistan’s intentions given its past track record in Afghanistan.

Given Ghani’s rejection of the idea of an interim government the US administration was now patently increasing the pressure on the Afghan President to toe the US line first spelt out by Khalilzad.

The media reported that the US Secretary of State had sent a letter to President Ghani effectively proposing the creation of an interim government and carrying a veiled threat that if Ghani continued to balk and delay, the US was still prepared to withdraw all its troops by May 1,2021 leaving the Ghani government at the mercy of the Taliban. According to media reports the letter said that all options remained on the table for the remaining US 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that no decisions about its military commitment after May 1 had been made.

The letter proposed a conference by the United Nations to convene foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and United States to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan. A 90-day reduction violence proposal was included intended to prevent a spring offensive by the Taliban. According to the letter the draft proposal said the guiding principles for Afghanistan's future, the structure of a transitional government, and a political roadmap for a lasting ceasefire were the three significant elements .

The draft reportedly stated that when the term of a proposed transitional government ended, the future leader of Afghanistan would be elected through a popular vote. The second part of the draft said that Islam was the official religion of the country, all Afghan citizens would be provided security, and Afghanistan was the common home for all ethnic and religious groups. In also proposed a new constitution that would protect the rights of women and children.

According to the draft, a transitional "Peace Government of Afghanistan" shall be established as of the date of the agreement. The "Peace Government shall exist until it transfers power to a permanent Government following the adoption of a new constitution and national elections.

Meanwhile the daily reports from Afghanistan continue to highlight the violence. Afghan women dread the possibility of a return of Taliban rule despite their protestations about protecting women’s rights. The third draft of the much argued budget for the current year finally approved by the Afghan Parliament providing for over 473 billion Afs (nearly $6 billion), including 311 billion Afs ($4 billion) for the regular budget and 162 billion Afs ($2 billion) for the development budget. In the third and latest draft, 105 million Afs ($1.3 million) have been shifted to the regular budget from the development budget.

Afghanistan would continue to remain dependent on international financial and development help possibly for decades even if peace and a stable and acceptable government were to eventually bless the country.

New round of US-Taliban talks opens in Doha | Arab News