The Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed to forge ahead with substantive negotiations aimed at ending decades of almost continuous war in the country, representatives from the two sides said in near-twin tweets on Wednesday.
Although peace talks ostensibly began on Sept. 12 in Qatar, the negotiations quickly bogged down in procedural matters, like which form of Islamic law should govern disputes between negotiators.
Nader Nadery, a leading member of the Afghan government negotiations team, signaled a breakthrough, tweeting, "The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the [negotiations] will begin on the agenda." Minutes later, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem echoed him: "The procedures including its preamble of the Intra-Afghan Negotiations has been finalized and from now on, the negotiations will begin on the agenda."
Neither side said precisely when the more substantive negotiations would begin or offered further detail. However, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, architect of the peace process, tweeted that the two sides had created "a three-page agreement [codifying] rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire."
It was unclear when a comprehensive ceasefire would go into effect. The Afghan government has demanded that the Taliban immediately halt its attacks, but the insurgents insist they will lay down their arms only after a peace deal is concluded. Since the two sides first agreed to negotiations, the Talban have escalated violence across Afghanistan, particularly targeting Afghan security forces.
Suggesting he expects hostilities to continue, Khalilzad tweeted that as negotiations begin, his team will work with all sides for a "serious reduction of violence and even a ceasefire during this period."
Still, the near carbon-copy statements indicated the two sides were making a concerted effort to keep the talks on track.
Nadery and Naeem later issued another pair of matching tweets, saying they had formed a committee to prepare "draft topics" for the agenda, adding: "The current negotiations ... show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace."
The latest agreement amid spiraling tensions appears to have been a result of the efforts of late-night informal discussions between the two sides, said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.
"This was beautifully the result of two sides talking to each other," he added.
The Afghan government negotiators in particular, Watkins said, were "feeling all this incredible pressure," from the U.S., the international community and Afghans who, he said, "watch this process fill up the news everyday but not see it change their lives on the ground."
Watkins warned the next phase of talks has its own perils. "The next preliminary step is a big one: discussing the agenda of these talks — what order are they going to bring up and discuss each topic?"
The agreement to move forward with substantive negotiations was welcomed by the United Nations, country representatives in Kabul, Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who described Wednesday's announcements by the Afghan government and the Taliban as "a major milestone."
The Taliban agreed to begin Afghan peace talks as a condition of a deal they made separately with the U.S. in February that will see most U.S. and other foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan by next spring.
This has raised questions about whether the insurgents are stalling until foreign forces withdraw.
"I see no prospect, especially given that the Taliban is achieving its objectives without even having to give up anything," said retired Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We are reducing our forces without gaining anything from them in return," Petraeus said during a video conference with the think tank, Carnegie Endowment. He added, "I see no prospect that the Taliban will agree to what I would think would be a durable end to the war between the Taliban and the other insurgent groups and extremists and Afghan forces."
Watkins, of the International Crisis Group, says the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban have finally agreed to begin substantive talks may prompt the incoming Biden administration to view the peace process brokered by the Trump administration more seriously. At least, he said, the negotiations won't be "written off summarily," as they might have been had there been no progress.