Afghan peace talks that resumed four days ago are effectively on hold, sources from both sides said on January 13, as negotiators wait for President-elect Joe Biden to signal whether he will stick to Donald Trump's aggressive schedule to pull out troops.
After a monthlong break, some negotiators from both sides have yet to return to Doha, the Qatari capital that has served as the venue for negotiations between the Afghan government and the insurgents to end decades of war. A diplomatic source in Kabul said expectations were low for progress before Biden takes office on January 20.
The sides "do not want to commit to anything before the 20th. They wanted to have the process going in the meantime because that was one of the requirements of the international community, so they have the process. But it is stagnant," he said.
In an agreement reached last year, Trump, who had long promised to end America's longest war, signed the United States up for a full withdrawal in the coming months. But that depends on the Taliban meeting security conditions which the Afghan government says have not been met. Biden and his advisers have so far given few clues as to their plans.
"We are waiting for the new U.S. administration and their policies toward Afghanistan to see whether they would respect the peace accord,” a Taliban negotiator told Reuters on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.
"If they don't honor their commitment of withdrawing their forces as promised . ..then we would need to make tough decisions by appointing hard-liners to key positions on the ground."
After months of little progress, the sides finally agreed on ground rules for talks late last year. The talks then broke up in December, in part to allow negotiators to return home for consultations with their leadership.
The sides announced last week they would restart talks on January 9. But so far only limited meetings between smaller teams called contact groups have taken place, three diplomatic and Afghan government sources told Reuters.
Around four top members of the Taliban negotiating team were not yet in Qatar, the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. He said this was due to logistical issues traveling from remote areas where they were visiting family. They would arrive in the next few days and the delay would not affect the talks, he said.
Some Afghan government negotiators were also not yet in Doha. One, who has been receiving treatment for cancer, told Reuters she planned to travel there this week.
Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute think tank, said one reason for the delay on the Taliban side could be that negotiators needed more time to confer with the group's leaders.
"It's not yet fully clear why they are delayed, but with the growing speculation this can't go on too much longer without some sort of explanation," she said. The delayed return "reflects the existing lack of momentum."