Even as US and Taliban officials were meeting this week for a seventh round of peace talks, members of the militant group embarked on the latest in a string of terrorist attacks bringing yet more misery to Afghanistan. As negotiators gathered round the table in Doha, Taliban members killed at least 25 pro-government troops in Nahrin in northern Afghanistan. Two days into the talks, a Taliban bomb in central Kabul killed six and wounded at least 100 more, including children in a primary school near the site of the attack. The ongoing violence makes a mockery of claims by the likes of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be making “real progress” in peace negotiations and in affirming “the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”. In Afghanistan’s seemingly intractable 18-year war, after the US invaded the country to hunt down Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and depose the Taliban, the latter continue their reign of terror and hold sway in more than half the country. It seems the Taliban are still dictating terms, including demands for the withdrawal of US troops, while continuing to kill innocent people.
Although the US role in the peace process is critical, contradictory statements from within the administration have proven problematic. While US President Donald Trump declared on Monday that nearly half his troops in Afghanistan had been withdrawn, leaving 9,000 soldiers in the country, US defence officials put the remaining figure at 14,000. Clarity on this issue is crucial, particularly with the security of Afghans at stake. As today’s triumphant July 4 military parade in Washington DC demonstrates, the president is more preoccupied with showmanship than tiptoeing through the delicate and complex negotiations needed to resolve Afghanistan’s crisis. The conflict negotiator’s mantra is that peace is a marathon, not a sprint, involving sacrifice and confidence-building measures. But weary Afghans who have endured a never-ending war hold little hope of a resolution.
Still, there is cause for cautious optimism. On Sunday all-Afghan peace talks will begin in Doha, with the support of Germany. The Taliban have long eschewed talks with the UN-backed government of Ashraf Ghani, which it views as a US "puppet", but with Afghan officials participating in a personal capacity, this is the closest the two sides have come to facing one another. Only intra-Afghan dialogue can end the immense human suffering in Afghanistan. At the forefront must be empowerment of the Afghan people, education, health care, women's rights and an end to violence. The only way for the nation to progress is if the Taliban stop their bloody stranglehold on the country. They cannot continue to set the agenda while committing atrocities with impunity. With the US's help, Mr Ghani's government must regain control before elections in September. As German special envoy Markus Potzel said: "Only Afghans themselves can decide the future of their country." Progress might be slow but Monday's talks are an important step in ending Afghanistan's war.