In recent months, a peace process aimed at ending nearly four decades of war in Afghanistan has gained momentum after Washington and the Taliban came to a tentative agreement following months of talks.
But it is still not clear exactly what kind of nation is likely to emerge after the process moves toward a peace deal that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan, says he is hopeful will be concluded before the presidential election in July.
Khalilzad, an Afghan-born seasoned diplomat, has pushed the Taliban hard to embrace a cease-fire and join direct talks with the Western-backed Afghan government. But the Taliban have made few concessions and instead have only agreed to guarantee that Afghanistan will not revert to a terrorist haven.
As Afghanistan marks the 30th anniversary of the departure of Soviet troops in 1989 this month, some in the country fear a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops enabled by a pact with the Taliban would not guarantee lasting peace.
They say the current situation echoes that of the early 1990s. In the absence of Soviet support, Afghanistan’s socialist government had collapsed, and a civil war broke out among various mujahedin and communist factions after they failed to agree on an internationally backed enforceable peace deal.
The Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Afghan government by declaring it a U.S. puppet has raised the specter for many of continued bloodshed even after the war between the United States and the Taliban comes to an end.
Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, says the U.S. and Taliban negotiators have yet to overcome some steep obstacles in reaching a peace agreement.
The main challenge is that the parties to the conflict have yet to reconcile their visions of an endgame in Afghanistan.
“One vision assumes that the purpose of the negotiations is to find a way to incorporate the Taliban and its values within a democratic constitutional order,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “Through a number of possible means, it offers every opportunity for the Taliban to compete for power.”
Weinbaum, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. State Department at the time of the Taliban’s emergence in the 1990s, says the Taliban counter this vision with one of their own.
“The other vision presumes a Shari’a-based system of governance which promises its adversaries inclusion and tolerance but only within a well-defined Islamic framework,” he said. “Although the Taliban may deny its aim is to seek domination, only a government that fully shares and promotes its values is likely to be viewed as legitimate.”
In Washington, the State Department is aware of such complexities.
"This trip is part of an overall effort to facilitate a peace process that protects U.S. national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country's future," the State Department said in a statement issued ahead of Khalilzad’s February 10-28 visit to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Last month, Khalilzad said the United States and the Taliban had agreed on a framework that could prompt the withdrawal of U.S. troops in return for Taliban guarantees that Afghan territory will never be used for terrorist activities.
However, there is no written agreement, and in Khalilzad’s words, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
As Khalilzad garners backing for his efforts from European and NATO allies, the Taliban announced a 14-member negotiating team on February 12 ahead of scheduled negotiations with U.S. officials.
Last week, the Taliban and a delegation comprising former officials and led by former President Hamid Karzai pledged to continue an “intra-Afghan” dialogue following two days of talks in Moscow.
Yet the Taliban have shown little interest in meeting with the Afghan government.
To offset the government’s apparent exclusion from talks with the insurgents, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called for a grand jirga or grand assembly.
“At the jirga, people will hold discussions on the nature of the peace talks and the post-peace government in Afghanistan,” he said on February 11.
For his part, Khalilzad continues to encourage all sides to seize the opportunity that the current peace process represents.
“The Afghans must sit across the table with each other and come to an agreement about the future of their country,” he said.