Key actors in Afghan peace process say it's a no-go

While the US has pledged to work toward a negotiated settlement with insurgents, some insiders say the US is pulling back from that. 

Despite a number of setbacks in Afghanistan, including a spate of insider killings, the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to working toward a negotiated peace settlement in Afghanistan.

State Department officials say they continue to push for Afghan-led talks and reconciliation, taking steps to pave the way for potential negotiations.

“And through all of this, we continue to be clear that we remain open to talks,” said a US State Department official who is not authorized to speak to the media. “At this point, it is up to the Taliban to fulfill its obligations.”

But many Afghans involved in the process say they’ve seen a marked reduction in the international community’s interest level in talks that have so far seen insubstantial progress.

“Maybe they’re thinking that their efforts are not going to have any positive effects, and they’re thinking that there can only be a change in the peace efforts after 2014,” says Maulavi Shahzada Shahid, a member of the High Peace Council who says he senses a pullback.

The 2010 Peace Jirga, when Afghan leaders from throughout the country came together to discuss how to bring an end to the conflict through talks with the insurgency, made the peace process a central aspect to finding a solution to the Afghan conflict. On the heels of that jirga President Hamid Karzai created the High Peace Council to continue as a special outreach group, and supported the formation of a number of internationally funded reconciliation and reintegration programs.

Despite the emphasis on various peace efforts, the programs have yielded limited results. Shortly after the 2010 jirga, a man pretending to be a high-level Taliban figure caused international embarrassment when he convinced NATO to meet with him. Then in September 2011, the Taliban assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council. And finally this spring, the Taliban temporarily suspended negotiations over frustrations related to US officials’ hesitancy to engage in a prisoner exchange.

Following the signing in May of the Afghan-US strategic agreement, which paved the way to keep a US presence here until at least 2024, many Taliban members said that the group lost interest in peace talks.

“The signing of the strategic agreement with America harmed the peace talks between the US and the Taliban a lot, because after that the Taliban knew that America wants to be in Afghanistan for a long time,” says Akbar Agha, a former senior member of the Taliban. “Even from the beginning, the foreigners didn’t want to have peace talks.”

Some insiders say that US officials have long been prepared for the eventuality that talks may not yield fruitful results.

“My understanding is that the US administration has for the past year and a half believed that a political deal including the Taliban would be helpful in stabilizing Afghanistan,” says Michael Semple, a Harvard University fellow who has served as an informal mediator in the peace talks. “They have never bet everything on this, and the fallback was always to proceed with ‘transition’ sans deal.”

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