The fresh round of peace negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban which took off on Monday, 25 February in Doha picked up ‘from where it was left last time’. In their last meeting, also held in Doha, both sides had reportedly agreed on a framework for a possible U.S. drawdown of troops in exchange for a guarantee that Taliban would not perpetrate or support any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan. For the ongoing peace process to have any success, it is essential that it leads to an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue to determine the country’s political future. At present, both the U.S. and Taliban have expressed cautious satisfaction over the progress of the talks but as stated by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghan reconciliation, “there is a lot more work to be done before we can say we have succeeded in our efforts.” While the U.S. President, Donald Trump, has long pushed for the return of U.S troops from Syria and Afghanistan, in 2017, he agreed to bolster troop presence in Afghanistan at the insistence of the then Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis. Shortly after, in an abrupt volte-face, President Trump ordered preparations for the drawdown of roughly 7000 troops, a decision that came just as Mr. Khalilzad was engaged in negotiating with Taliban. With around 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and an additional 8000 NATO forces, tasked primarily with training of the Afghan army, President Trump’s decision for partial U.S. withdrawal creates uncertainty for the continued presence of NATO and allied troops in the region. More so, it has yet to be ascertained how this decision will impact the future of the peace process in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an ethnically heterogeneous country with no absolute majority population, a durable peace plan will invariably have to include the interests and aspirations of all ethnicities. As such, any decision with regard to the U.S. drawdown of troops should be associated with an intra-Afghan agreement. A hasty or unilateral action in the matter could potentially force the country into chaos with militant groups taking advantage of the turmoil to establish their own strategic interests. Thus the legitimacy and longevity of a successful peace agreement will depend on the inclusion of Afghanistan’s multi ethnic identities into the process, which would also require an effort on part of Taliban and the Afghan Government to identify common ground for dialogue aimed at negotiating peace. The fact remains that lasting peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved through a process that is ‘Afghan led and Afghan owned.’ The issue is that they have neither spelled out the specifics of their views on power sharing, nor have they initiated any sort of activity to seek common ground with other Afghan stakeholders. Having said that, it is for sure that Taliban would not accept an amalgamation into the current order to play second fiddle to the administration that they have for so long fought against Even then, sustained peace in Afghanistan would require Taliban and other political actors to arrive at a compromise. Given the varied and sharply divergent perspectives of those involved, reaching such an agreement would present a challenge, especially on issues regarding the political process, which would include decisions on the structure of the government, elections, freedom of media and human rights, and even more specifically the rights of women. In addition, a consensus would be required on the principles of power sharing. In this context, Taliban would have to concede that their movement does not have a national identity, and that it does not have the support of other ethnic groups, such as the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. Instead, they are hamstrung to an ideology that many Afghans, particularly the urban class, find too extreme and archaic, which makes it all the more difficult to rationalize a compromise for an agreement. Taliban rejects the legitimacy of the 2004 constitution and the successive parliamentary and presidential elections on grounds that ‘they were held under the foreign yoke and prevented Afghans from exercising free choice’. Furthermore, they continue to refuse, all negotiations with the ‘puppet regime’ in Kabul, and it is this uncompromising attitude that has severely strained the credibility and sincerity of the Taliban rhetoric. On its part, the Taliban movement has till now failed to prepare a public case for an accord and their narrative continues to be of war and violence. Now the question is what would the outlay of a Taliban peace be like? Outliers in Afghanistan’s political archipelago, the Taliban movement has shown great resilience and adaptability. The movement is not an inchoate one that can be wished away. The rationale of the movement is inspired by the historical narrative of Holy War against the invading army of heathens, and this has so strong an influence that Taliban believes in the righteousness of their struggle that seeks to liberate the land and establish a society based on precepts of Sharia. Consequently for them, future political and social system will inevitably have to hinge on the canons of Sharia, as interpreted by their cognoscenti. In this scenario, prospects of a compromise are not serious. If the ultimate ambition of Taliban is to replace participatory democracy with a regressive system of government, then there is simply not enough common ground for a political settlement. However, in recent political pronouncements, the Taliban have claimed that they do not seek a monopoly of power and instead want an “Afghan inclusive government.” According to recent statements, the Taliban realizes “that the opponents of the Islamic Emirate cannot be forced to surrender nor be eliminated. We will be in the state of an unending war if each side stresses their primary positions against the other.” But the issue is that they have neither spelled out the specifics of their views on power sharing, nor have they initiated any sort of activity to seek common ground with other Afghan stakeholders. Having said that, it is for sure that Taliban would not accept an amalgamation into the current order to play second fiddle to the administration that they have for so long fought against. Indeed, this would not be their idea of peaceful coexistence. On the contrary, it is likely that they would seek reconfiguration of the present dispensation, giving them greater autonomy and power in running the affairs of State. To be continued… The writer is a former Ambassador Published in Daily Times, March 1st 2019.