Not for the first time in the fragile negotiations between the US and the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan has hope been followed almost immediately by doubt. After six days of talks, both sides intimated progress had been made on chief concerns, including a possible ceasefire and the drawdown of American troops. Within hours, and in contradiction of an earlier statement by the organisation, a Taliban spokesperson denied an 18-month timeframe had been agreed for such a withdrawal.
Not too much should be read into every such apparent setback. Public posturing is in the very nature of negotiations of this kind, with both sides keenly aware of the need to keep on side diverse players, both domestic and foreign. Such ripostes should not overshadow a far more significant development – that discussions between Taliban negotiators and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad touched on the possibility of a permanent ceasefire. Until now, the Afghan government has not been not involved in the talks but will eventually need to be, clearly a vital step before any inclusive agreement can be agreed upon. After 17 years of war, there has been remarkable progress since preliminary talks took place in November, followed by meetings in Abu Dhabi in December. The two sides have met several times since. Just months ago, few could have foreseen that the Taliban would be brought into a process of dialogue, let alone the prospect of the organisation giving up bombs and guns in favour of a role in a legitimate government. But if the ultimate prize of the talks are a national government in which the Taliban take part as willing participants in a political process, it is time for the organisation to demonstrate that its commitment to peace extends beyond mere words.
For since the prospect of talks was first raised, Taliban attacks in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 145,000 people over the past 17 years have only intensified. Even as its representatives were arriving at the latest round of negotiations last week, a Taliban attack on a military base in Afghanistan left more than 100 dead. It could well be that the Taliban, emboldened by the prospect of precipitous US withdrawal from its regional obligations and the fact that it still controls nearly half the country, considers it will win more concessions around the peace table if it continues to exact an unsustainable toll from the Afghan people. If so, this is a tactic that must be abandoned before the Taliban can be allowed to progress further towards political legitimacy. No organisation professing to represent the best interests of this battered nation can do so while continuing to take the lives of its citizens. Afghanistan has suffered enough. If the Taliban wish to play a constructive part in forging its future, there must be room at the table for Afghan voices to be heard and for all parties to start working together towards a more peaceful future.