It’s been a year of fits and starts in the Afghan peace process. In February 2020, the U.S. signed a bilateral agreement with the Taliban that offered a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for a vague promise of peace negotiations with the Afghan government. The May 1 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal is drawing near but the negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul have stalled before they ever really got started. In an apparent attempt to kick start the talks, Turkey has offered to host a meeting between the two sides in Istanbul this month. The purpose of the meeting remains vague, though over the past week, major players both from the U.S. and Afghanistan, including the U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and former Afghan warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, have met with Turkish officials. What can we expect from this Turkish-led mediation?
Adnan R. Khan: Why does Turkey want to get involved in this very complicated affair?
Ilter Turan: Turkey is already involved because it has troops in Afghanistan helping “to keep the peace.” And by all indications, the Turkish military, which does not engage in combat operations, is seen as an impartial actor by the various armed groups. So, one reason would be that Turkey is considered a trusted party that could help facilitate negotiations.
In broader terms, however, Turkey’s interest in these negotiations also relates to its attempt to restore its pre-Arab Spring status as a regional peace-builder. In recent years, Turkey has become a party to regional disputes and has come to be looked upon more as a source of problems. By offering its services to bring peace to Afghanistan, it is trying to demonstrate that it is committed to building regional peace and stability.
Also, maybe for understandable reasons, the Americans that constitute the main fighting force in Afghanistan seem to be rather open to the idea of Turkey hosting this meeting so as to offer a gesture to show that they plan to work with Turkey wherever interests converge.
Adnan R. Khan: For the moment, it doesn’t appear that the Taliban are in a particularly give-and-take state of mind. What sorts of challenges does that pose in terms of bringing the parties together and actually having a negotiation?
Ilter Turan: You’re absolutely right. Looking at current developments from the perspective of the Taliban, they see their complete victory as a foregone conclusion. Therefore, for them the purpose of negotiations is discussing how power will be transferred to them. Obviously, the Afghan government and the coalition it represents is not ready to concede that point. So, the ground for negotiations, particularly one that will produce lasting solutions, is at best shaky. Perhaps the best we can expect is a temporary set of agreements that do not remove the grounds for continuation of the struggle. In addition to the issue of reaching an agreement, the parties must to stick to its terms once they are agreed upon. The key question is whether this is likely to happen or whether the Taliban will take this as temporary respite from which it can move on to take over the rest of the country.
Adnan R. Khan: Clearly, this one meeting is not going to be enough to achieve peace. What do you foresee this first meeting achieving and what is possible down the road?
Ilter Turan: This first meeting may give us a flavor of what is possible. The best outcome would be to modify the aspirations of the Taliban and make them understand that they have to share power with other actors if peace is to be achieved. In that sense, it would be a good start if the parties agree to define who is going to do what and how much power each party is going to have. This would be the optimal outcome of this initial meeting. The worst outcome is that they agree on nothing and return home to continue fighting.
Adnan R. Khan: What does a total failure mean for Turkey? Is it risking its reputation by hosting such unpredictable talks?
Ilter Turan: I am not sure there is much of a risk. Turkey has merely said it will offer to host the meeting. It has not really given an indication as to how, if at all, it will be involved in the negotiations or whether it is willing to assume any additional responsibilities. If the outcome is positive, I suspect that the Turkish government will try to take credit; if the outcome is not positive, the Turkish government will simply say: ‘We did our best.’