taliban attack northern provincial capital

~~~

by bill roggio

long war journal

october 2, 2019

~~~

The Taliban has launched an attack on Taluqan, the provincial capital of Takhar, and has been battling Afghan forces there and in several outlying districts over the past several days.

This is yet another example of the Taliban leveraging rural areas that it controls – areas that the US and coalition forces say do not matter – to threaten major population centers, including provincial capitals.

The fighting began on the evening of Sept. 29 in Baharak district and quickly spread to Taluqan. Afghan government officials optimistically claimed on Sept. 30 that the attack on Taluqan was repelled and 36 Taliban fighters were killed in airstrikes.

Yet two days later, the Afghan Ministry of Defense announced that it was conducting a “clearing operation” in the provincial capital, while “Taliban attacks in several parts of the city have caused heavy casualties,” TOLOnews reported.

Oddly enough, the Taliban has not yet commented on its operations in Taluqan, but has commented on the fighting in Baharak. On Sept. 29, the Taliban claimed it seized control of the district as well as Chah Ab and Khwaja Ghar. Two days later reported it killed 21 Arbakis, or local tribal militia, during clashes in Baharak.

Fighting in Takhar has intensified over the past month.  On Sept. 11, Afghan officials confirmed the districts of Qala-i-Yangi, Darqad, and Chah Ab were seized by the Taliban.

Security in Takhar has dropped dramatically since the US began withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan and began transferring control to Afghan security forces in the summer of 2013. Currently, more than half Takhar’s 17 districts are controlled (six, including Taluqan) or contested (four) by the Taliban, according to an ongoing assessment by FDD’s Long War Journal.

Over past two months, the Taliban has assaulted Farah City, Kunduz City and Pul-i-Khurmi, the provincial capitals of Farah, Kunduz, and Baghlan respectively. Many other provincial capitals have seen attacks over the past four years.

While the Taliban has yet to hold a major population center for a prolonged period of time, it signals a shift in the fight from the rural areas to major population centers. The Taliban has been able to accomplish this by using the the rural areas under its control as launching pads.

~~~

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/10/taliban-attacks-takhars-provincial-capital.php

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the pre-election raid ~ southern helmand

~~~

by thomas joscelyn

long war journal

september 23, 2019

~~~

A few days before election day, U.S. and Afghan forces targeted al Qaeda members in Musa Qala, a Taliban-controlled district in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. The U.S. military said that “massed al Qaeda figures” at the location “presented an imminent threat.”

The Afghan government reported that “a high-profile Al Qaeda group” was “embedded with Taliban leaders” at the raid site.

The joint operations immediately caused controversy, as some accounts indicate that dozens of civilians were killed. The precise cause of the civilian casualties, including women and children, is under investigation. Several reports say at least some of the deceased were attending a wedding party.

Airstrikes were called in as American and Afghan forces battled al Qaeda and Taliban fighters at the compound in Musa Qala.

According to U.S. military officials, the airstrikes were conducted “against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces.” The U.S. assesses that “the majority of those killed in the fighting died from al Qaeda weapons or in the explosion of the terrorists’ explosives caches or suicide vests.”

That is, the U.S. claims al Qaeda is responsible for most of the civilian casualties.

According to President Ashraf Ghani’s national security staff, the target of the raid was Asim Umar, the first leader of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). However, it seems that Umar was not present at the time, or escaped.

Afghanistan’s National Security Council (NSC), which reports to President Ghani, tweeted that the “joint operation” was intended to eliminate “a high-profile Al-Qaeda group embedded with Taliban leaders in a compound in Musa Qala, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province.”

Asim Umar, the first leader of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), was thought to be “in the compound and a target of the operation.”

The NSC didn’t say that Umar was killed, but did claim that his “courier,” who was “responsible for delivering messages to Ayman al-Zawahiri,” met his demise.

“Also killed in the operation were Taliban’s explosives chief for Helmand & two of his deputies,” the NSC tweeted. “Two other Taliban leaders are among the several Taliban & foreign terrorists killed.”

Asim Umar’s wife is among the six Pakistani women who are now in custody, according to NSC. “Eight Taliban and several foreign terrorists” were also detained, while “Taliban weapons and ammunitions” were “seized and destroyed.”

Afghan’s Ministry of Defense released a statement earlier in the day saying that “22 foreign members of Taliban were killed and 14 arrested.” Among those detained were “five Pakistani nationals and one Bangladeshi.” This “foreign terrorist group was actively engaged in organizing terrorist attacks” and “a large warehouse of the terrorists’ supplies and equipment was also demolished.”

AQIS is known to operate in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 2015, U.S. and Afghan forces raided two large-scale AQIS training facilities in the Shorabak district of Kandahar. General John W. Nicholson, the previous top American military commander in Afghanistan, told the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point that intelligence and media captured during the raid showed how AQIS’s tentacles reached into Bangladesh. There “were congratulatory notes going back and forth about some of these activities in Bangladesh,” Nicholson said.

Although the Afghan government describes Asim Umar as AQIS’s overall leader, there is evidence that his one-time lieutenant is now in charge of the al Qaeda branch. Umar may have assumed another leadership role within al Qaeda. In June, Umar released a message praising the Taliban’s “victory” and America’s “defeat” in Afghanistan. He also referred to the Taliban’s overall leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as the “Amir-ul-Momineen,” meaning the “Emir of the Faithful.” That honorific is usually reserved for a Muslim caliph, but al Qaeda consistently uses it to describe the Taliban’s leader — an indication of his ideological importance to the movement.

Taliban reaction to

raid

in Musa Qala

The Taliban quickly produced multiple images and a video highlighting the civilian casualties in Musa Qala.

“US and Afghan forces indiscriminately raided and bombed a wedding in Kunjak & Shawaroz areas near Musa Kala bazaar, Helmand, last night during which tens of civilians mostly women and children were killed along with 6 homes and 3 vehicles destroyed,” the text in one Taliban video reads. The production is part of the jihadist group’s “Hidden Crimes” series, which highlights reports of civilian casualties caused by Afghan and Western forces.

The Taliban also disseminated a series of images purportedly showing some of the children who were killed.

The Taliban hasn’t addressed al Qaeda’s reported presence at the site. But this isn’t unusual. AQIS fights under the Taliban banner and, with few exceptions, doesn’t advertise its direct participation in the fighting. Al Qaeda prefers to hide its hand. Moreover, the Taliban has repeatedly lied about al Qaeda in Afghanistan since the 1990s and only occasionally acknowledges the close relationship in public.

Until earlier this month, the State Department was prepared to endorse a deal in which the Taliban’s political office would distance their comrades from al Qaeda. While it isn’t clear what the terms of the proposed accord actually said, it was widely reported that the Taliban would renounce al Qaeda. However, there are many problems with that claim.  Assuming the Afghan government and U.S. military are correct about the compound in Musa Qala, then this additional evidence shows that the Taliban and al Qaeda remain inextricably tied together. There is no evidence that the Taliban’s commanders are prepared to betray AQIS or its men.

And according to the Afghan government, the AQIS leadership is communicating directly with Ayman al-Zawahiri. That isn’t surprising, as Zawahiri and his lieutenants established AQIS in the first place.

U.S. and Afghan forces

have repeatedly targeted al Qaeda

Taliban’s “Red Unit”

and drug facilities in Helmand

Al Qaeda has a longstanding presence in Helmand. In Aug. 2017, for instance, Afghan forces killed several al Qaeda operatives during a raid in Helmand’s Garmsir district. Several reports indicated that AQIS had training facilities in Helmand as of 2015.

NATO and Afghan forces have repeatedly sought to damage the Taliban’s infrastructure in Musa Qala, including personnel responsible for orchestrating suicide bombings and facilities used in the group’s narcotics trafficking. In 2017, U.S. and Afghan forces struck locations throughout Helmand as part of a campaign to disrupt the Taliban’s finances.

On Nov. 21 2017, General John W. Nicholson, the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan at the time, explained that “new authorities” allowed the U.S. to bolster Afghan raids on Taliban drug networks and other facilities in Helmand. The “primary focus of this particular operation’s been in Northern Helmand, the so-called emirate of the Taliban, where they have enjoyed relative freedom of action for the last several years and where much of their drug enterprise is located,” Nicholson said.  Among the targets was a “Taliban narcotics production facility in Musa Qala.”

On Dec. 1, 2017, a Taliban “Red Unit” commander known as Mullah Shah Wali (also known as Haji Nasir) “was killed in a kinetic strike” in Musa Qala, according to NATO’s Resolute Support.  “One of Wali’s deputy commanders and three other insurgents were also killed in the strike.”

Resolute Support explained that Wali and his men were “responsible for planning numerous suicide bombings, Improvised Explosives Device (IED) attacks, and coordinated assaults against civilians, Afghan and coalition forces.” Wali “was directly responsible for coordinating operations and resupply of munitions, explosives, and materials for the Taliban throughout Helmand province.”

General Nicholson also connected Wali to the Taliban’s narcotics production and trafficking in Helmand, claiming his demise would “degrade” their drug trade.

On May 24, 2018, Task Force-Southwest, which operates under U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, conducted a “ground-based rocket artillery strike using the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, against a command and control node for high-level Taliban leaders in” Musa Qala…

~~~

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

~~~

https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/09/joint-raid-targeted-al-qaeda-members-in-taliban-stronghold-u-s-and-afghan-officials-say.php

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election blues

~~~

by ayesha tanzeem

voice of america

september 29, 2019 (sunday)

~~~

KABUL – Afghan officials are counting votes after Saturday’s presidential election that was held amid repeated threats by the Taliban and fear of post-election chaos.

Better performance by electoral and security authorities notwithstanding, fears remain that disagreements on the result might engulf the country into a destabilizing fight for power.

Empty polling stations and empty ballot boxes. These were the scenes VOA teams found in the capital Kabul and many parts of the country Saturday.

Unofficial estimates indicate the voter turnout will be a historic low.

Extreme threats from the Taliban, voter dissatisfaction with candidates, and confusion over whether the twice-delayed elections will be held this time, kept campaigns from gaining steam.

Now that they were held, given Afghanistan’s track record, many fear a dispute over results that could devolve into a full-blown crisis.

Some candidates, like former warlord turned politician Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, seem to already be preparing for such a scenario.

“The elections will result in increased violence. No one will accept the results other than those who were involved in widespread fraud. Naturally, it will result in a crisis,” he said.

The process of counting votes in Afghanistan is long. Ballot boxes have to arrive from far off places with little or no communication lines. The preliminary results are not expected for a few weeks. Only then will they get to any complaints.

“The law is very clear. If there is fraud, candidates and their followers can go to the Election Complaints Commission and register their complaints. The commission will decide upon them and we are committed to abide by its decision,” said Habibur Rehman, Secretary of the Election Comission.

The last presidential election was marred by allegations of fraud and the country became so divided that then-Secretary of State John Kerry had to step in and broker a power-sharing deal between the two leading candidates. The same two, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, seemed to be leading in this year’s race as well.

Despite the introduction of more robust systems this time to avoid fraud, including taking finger prints and pictures of voters, allegations of fraud have already emerged from certain quarters.

If more voices join ranks, this could wreak havoc to an already fragile system.

Both election and security authorities insist that they are ready to deal with any scenario. And everyone is hoping for a smooth transition. But Afghanistan has a long history of post-election chaos.

~~~

https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/voting-over-now-real-challenges-begin-afghanistan

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taliban body count skyrocketing

~~~

by Omar

Salaam Times

09-17-2019

~~~

HERAT — Afghan and coalition forces have ramped up military pressure against the Taliban over the last two weeks, killing hundreds of militant commanders and leaving fighters with fewer and fewer places to hide.

More than 350 Taliban fighters have been killed in attacks conducted by security forces in Afghanistan’s western provinces since September 1, according to official data.

Those killed have included the Taliban shadow district governors of the Ghorian, Gulran, Obe, Keshk Rabat Sangi and Adraskan districts of Herat Province, as well as other well-known commanders, say authorities in Herat.

“Our security forces have launched operations in all areas where the Taliban exist,” said Herat Governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi.

“Operations against the Taliban are underway in Keshk Rabat Sangi, Gulran, Shindand and Obe districts, and we’ll continue these operations until we clear these areas of the Taliban,” he said.

In an operation in Obe District on September 5, “more than 50 Taliban fighters, including three of their famous commanders, were killed and another 50-plus were injured,” said Rahimi.

Rahimi earlier announced on September 3 that a Taliban trainer for suicide bombers was killed in Keshk Rabat Sangi District.

“In our operations in Keshk Rabat Sangi and Gulran districts of Herat Province, tens of Taliban fighters including a number of their group leaders were killed,” said Herat Police Chief Gen. Aminullah Amarkhil.

Mullah Sardar, the Taliban shadow district governor for Gulran, and Mullah Nabi, the shadow district governor for Keshk Rabat Sangi, were killed in these operations, he said.

“Mullah Idris, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Ghorian District of Herat, was killed along with six of his comrades in an air strike on September 10,” Amarkhil added. “Mullah Idris was the core organiser of blowing up electricity pylons in Ghorian and Zindajan districts.”

Nowhere to hide

Under pressure, Taliban fighters have withdrawn from most districts in the western region to remote areas. However, there is no place to hide, say officials.

“We have launched heavy and expansive attacks on the Taliban,” said Ghor Governor Ghulam Naser Khaze, referring to operations that started on September 1. “These operations were conducted in the west of Firuzkoh City and in some of the western districts [of Ghor Province].”

“More than 90 Taliban fighters lost their lives in these operations” and dozens were wounded, he added.

“The Taliban were forcing people into giving them tithe and zakat in some areas and districts of Ghor Province, but the security forces were able to stop this practice of extortion and expel them [the Taliban] from the villages,” said Khaze.

“The Taliban tried a lot to make the Herat-Ghor Highway unsafe and take control of the route, but in an operation, we cleared the highway of the Taliban,” he added. “We are working on putting permanent checkpoints to maintain the highway’s security.”

“The Taliban have seen heavy casualties in the past 10 days,” Col. Hasibullah Akhundzada, commander of the 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Badghis Province, said September 10.

“According to our reports, 114 Taliban fighters lost their lives and 67 sustained injuries, and a number of their commanders are also among the casualties,” he said. “We are trying to increase the number of ground attacks and air strikes on the Taliban.”

The Taliban attacked Farah City on September 6 and tried to capture certain areas, but they were defeated, said Farah Police Chief Gen. Ghulam Muhaiuddin Khairkhwa.

“Nearly 90 Taliban fighters, including their intelligence chief for Farah Province, Noor Ahmad Chakani, were killed,” he said. “A few other famous Taliban commanders who were leading the attack on Farah City were also killed in ground operations and air strikes.”

“Our operations on the Taliban have continued for three days in the outskirts of Farah City and we’ll search and clean all the areas,” Khairkhwa said on September 10.

“The Taliban intended to capture Farah City, but security forces with support from the Resolute Support Mission air forces were able to contain the Taliban and forced them to escape,” he added. “The Taliban couldn’t reach their goals and they didn’t succeed in killing civilians and the security forces.”

Losing a golden opportunity

The sustained pressure on the Taliban comes after a secret meeting in the United States between the Afghan government, US negotiators and Taliban leaders was called off September 8.

The Taliban passed up an opportunity by continuing violence amid talks in Qatar and causing the cancellation of the summit, say political experts and civil society activists.

The Taliban are no longer in the position they were in a few months ago and have lost their credibility at a global level by attempting to use the killing of civilians as a bargaining chip, they say.

“The Qatar peace talks were a great chance for the Taliban as it provided them with an opportunity to sign a peace deal with the international community, especially with the United States,” said Jawad Ameed, a civil society activist in Herat Province. “But the Taliban made a mistake as they declined to accept the ceasefire and increased violence and the killing of people, and thus lost the opportunity.”

“It is obvious that the Taliban will face enhanced military pressure in the wake of losing the chance to make peace, and this will be a huge blow to the group,” he said.

“The Taliban lost one of the best opportunities,” said Muhammad Rafiq Shahir, a political expert in Herat City. “The Taliban were dreaming of the Islamic Emirate in recent months, but they have to accept that now they have nothing, and they have lost their credibility.”

“If more military pressure is mounted on the Taliban in this situation, it will force them to renounce violence and join the peace talks,” he added.

“Giving the Taliban privilege and showing flexibility to them is like nurturing a snake in your bosom,” said Shahir.

~~~

http://afghanistan.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_st/features/2019/09/17/feature-01

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afghan gov’ment says elections first

~~~

by rahim faiez

associated press

sep. 14, 2019

~~~

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government will only consider making a “legitimate” peace with insurgents after national elections are held this month, an official told reporters on Saturday, despite the atmosphere of political uncertainty following the sudden halt in U.S.-Taliban peace talks.

President Donald Trump abruptly called off talks to end American’s longest war last week. The Afghan government was largely shut out of the negotiations and concerned that any finalized U.S.-Taliban deal would delay the elections while a national unity government was formed, forcing the exit of President Ashraf Ghani.

“Nothing will impede the presidential election from happening,” said the Afghan presidential spokesman, Sediq Seddiq

He said that a peace deal with the Taliban could only come after holding the presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28. “Legitimacy of peace cannot be achieved without elections,” he said.

Sediqqi also suggested that there will be a “big change” toward improving security across the country ahead of the voting and fears over more violence. The Taliban, who consider the Afghan government a U.S. puppet, have warned Afghans not to vote and that polling stations will be targets.

Sediqqi pointed to a Taliban delegation’s visit to Russia, just days after Trump called off talks, to say the insurgents are faced with a “political failure” of their own. He added that the Taliban should hold talks directly with the Afghan government — which they have refused to do — rather than foreign powers.

On Friday, a Taliban negotiating team visited Russia, where they held consultations with Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Afghanistan.

The Interfax news agency cited an unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the meeting underlined the necessity of renewing talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, and that the Taliban confirmed their readiness to continue dialogue with Washington.

It was the Taliban’s first international visit following the collapse of talks with Washington. The team was led by Mullah Sher Mohammad Stanikzai.

Trump tweeted Saturday that the Taliban was being hit hard militarily in the wake of the U.S. pulling out of negotiations following the death of a U.S. soldier.

“The Taliban has never been hit harder than it is being hit right now,” he said. “Killing 12 people, including one great American soldier, was not a good idea. There are much better ways to set up a negotiation. The Taliban knows they made a big mistake, and they have no idea how to recover!”

Moscow has twice this year hosted meetings between the Taliban and prominent Afghan personalities.

Sediqqi said that the Afghan government has suspended its own peace efforts for now. After the elections, the “progress of the peace process” would be a priority, he said…

~~~

https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/world/article/Afghan-government-says-elections-first-peace-14439622.php

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afghans wonder ~ what happens now?

~~~

by Rahim Faiez

Associated Press

September 9, 2019

~~~

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans braced for a possible new wave of Taliban violence Monday after President Donald Trump abruptly broke off nearly a year of talks with the insurgent group just when a deal to end America’s longest war seemed to be at hand.

Trump’s stunning weekend announcement that he had canceled a secret meeting with Taliban leaders and the Afghan president at Camp David and halted negotiations left many in Washington and Kabul scrambling to understand just what happens now.

“They’re dead,” Trump said of the negotiations on Monday, after the Taliban signaled they would return to talks.

At the same time, the Taliban said Trump’s decision to upend the deal just before its signing “displays lack of composure and experience,” and they vowed to continue their fight against “foreign occupation.”

“What more violence can they bring?” Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in an interview. “What else can they do? You know they have killed 300 civilians in the past three weeks. … So we will not be surprised if we see more attacks, but they have already done it.”

Political analyst Waheed Muzhda was gloomy about the prospects for the country.

“Unfortunately all the months of efforts came to an end with no result,” he said, “and I think the fight in Afghanistan will continue for long years.”

Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and more than 2,400 American service members have been killed in nearly 18 years of war that began when the U.S. invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they were ousted by the U.S. military for hosting the mastermind of 9/11, Osama bin Laden.

Afghans were wary of fresh violence in part because Trump’s announcement came shortly before a string of highly sensitive days in Afghanistan, including Monday’s anniversary of the killing of anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the major Shiite Muslim holy day of Ashoura on Tuesday, and Wednesday’s 9/11 anniversary.

There were no immediate reports of any major attacks in the country, but the streets of the capital, Kabul, were largely empty as armed supporters of Massoud, a rare Afghan unifying figure who was killed two days before 9/11, roamed in flag-draped vehicles, firing into the air in a show of power. One police officer was killed, officials said.

Elsewhere in Kabul, a roadside bomb wounded three civilians, but there was no claim of responsibility. And in northeastern Takhar province, the Taliban claimed attacks on at least two districts overnight, with no immediate reports of casualties.

In calling off negotiations, Trump cited a Taliban car bombing Thursday near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that killed an American service member along with 11 others. The insurgent group has defended its continued attacks even while a deal was taking shape, saying they were intended to strengthen its bargaining position.

Trump’s decision got a mixed reaction in Afghanistan.

Many people seek peace above all after four decades of various conflicts. But some fear a failed or weak deal could lead to the government’s collapse and bring another civil war like the one that raged in the 1990s before the Taliban swept into power.

Some feared that the deal that was on the table would do little or nothing to stop the carnage against the Afghan people. Also, many Afghan women have been wary of a Taliban return to power in some form under the intra-Afghan talks that would follow a U.S.-Taliban deal, recalling the years of oppression under a strict form of Islamic law.

Under the agreement in principle that the U.S. and the Taliban had worked out, the U.S. would withdraw about 5,000 of the 14,000 American troops in the country within 4½ months, and the insurgents would agree to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for global terror attacks by al-Qaida and others.

But such assurances would be “unbelievable,” said Sediqqi, the Afghan presidential spokesman. He said other groups across the region would have seen the deal as a victory for the Taliban and “would have joined them.”

He said the only way now for the Taliban to re-enter the peace process is to accept a cease-fire and speak directly with the Afghan government, which has been sidelined in the talks because the Taliban dismiss it as a U.S. puppet.

Others in the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reacted positively to Trump’s decision.

“Inviting un-repenting & unapologetic terrorists and mass murderers to Camp David would have tarnished the stature of the camp. … Gratified that US returned back to a principled stand,” Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh, tweeted.

Ghani, who is seeking re-election, has been insisting that the country’s Sept. 28 election be held as scheduled and not set aside by a U.S.-Taliban deal. Trump’s decision appears to have suddenly opened the path to a vote.

The Afghan president appeared to make an important shift in his stance on direct talks with the Taliban, declaring that his country is ready to meet but that “negotiation without a cease-fire is not possible.” The Afghan government had previously said it had no conditions for entering talks with the Taliban.

Ghani also invited Taliban chief Maulvi Hibatullah Akhunzada to a video conference and urged him to “at least talk with people” instead of hiding.

~~~

Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed…

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https://www.sfgate.com/news/world/article/Afghans-brace-for-fresh-violence-after-US-Taliban-14423936.php

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taliban attacks killing troop withdrawel

~~~

by Deb Riechmann

The Associated Press

September 6, 2019 (3 days ago)

~~~

WASHINGTON — Relentless, deadly attacks by the Taliban, including a car bombing Thursday that killed a u.s. service member, are testing President Donald Trump’s resolve to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end what he has called America’s “endless” war.

The death of the American — the fourth U.S. service member killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan — could be used to argue that it is long past time to bring U.S. troops home.

But the Afghan government and others worry that the attacks during ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks are evidence that the insurgent group cannot be trusted to end the violence and renounce international terror groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

“We want to make sure we are negotiating a peace, not simply a withdrawal,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said in a letter Thursday to Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Engel is demanding that Khalilzad, who has said the U.S. and the Taliban are on the threshold of a peace deal, come to testify before the House committee about the negotiations. The envoy was invited to appear Feb. 26 and April 8, but never responded.

“I do not consider your testimony at this hearing optional,” Engel, a New York Democrat, wrote in the letter.

Khalizad is now back in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, after updating the Afghan government on the latest developments in the talks. He said earlier this week that the insurgent group and the U.S. had reached a deal “in principle” and all that was still needed was Trump’s signature, but the details of the agreement have not been released.

A senior U.S. official said it’s not clear how long the envoy will be in Doha or where he will go afterward. It’s possible he could go back to Kabul or he could return to Washington, depending on what happens during discussions over the fine print of the potential deal with the Taliban, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the sensitive negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While details are scant about the deal the administration appears close to approving, the rising violence has rattled Kabul, the capital, and other sites around the country.

“Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The attack Thursday by a Taliban suicide car bombing in Kabul killed the U.S. service member, a Romanian soldier and at least 10 Afghan civilians in a busy diplomatic area that includes the U.S. Embassy. About 42 people were wounded.

Hours later, the Taliban set off a car bomb outside an Afghan military base in a neighboring province, killing four civilians.

Those attacks followed the disclosure by Amnesty International that Abdul Samad Amiri, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s acting director in Ghor province, was kidnapped and killed by the Taliban. And on Monday, the Taliban attacked a foreign compound, killing at least 16 people and wounding more than 100, almost all of them local civilians.

When reporters asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday what the Taliban needed to do to show they can be trusted, Esper said it was a matter for negotiators, not for him to discuss in public.

“Until we see a final agreed-upon document that outlines what that agreement looks like, I’m just going to hold my tongue because what I don’t want to do is get out ahead, or askew, of the sensitive negations,” Esper said while traveling in Britain.

Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, where 2,400 American service members have been killed since the U.S. ousted the ruling Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks. As part of any settlement, U.S. officials say they want assurances that the country will not again become a launching point for attacks.

Despite the violence, the administration is likely to continue pushing for an end to U.S. involvement and a withdrawal of American troops, said Jarrett Blanc, the deputy U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2012 to 2014.

“I would find it odd for Trump — based on how far this has gone — for him not to do it,” Blanc said. “My understanding is that the deal is very, very close to done. I would not be surprised if it’s a matter of days or a matter of weeks.”

He said he doesn’t believe the draft agreement includes a complete Taliban cease-fire, only a pledge to reduce violence.

Trump has said he wants to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops from Afghanistan and then contemplate further drawdowns. He has not offered a timeline for withdrawing troops, while saying the U.S. will retain a “high intelligence” presence in Afghanistan going forward. The Pentagon has been developing plans to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 U.S. troops still there, but the Taliban want all U.S. and NATO forces withdrawn.

Any U.S.-Taliban deal would open the door to a second phase of all-Afghan negotiations, which could be more difficult. Those talks — between the Taliban and Afghans both inside and outside the government — would aim to craft a peaceful future for the country. Complicating the situation is Afghanistan’s presidential election set for Sept. 28. The Taliban have threatened to attack election sites.

~~~

Associated Press writers Cara Anna in Kabul, Robert Burns in London and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

~~~

https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/09/05/taliban-attacks-test-trump-as-he-seeks-to-end-afghan-war

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trump says peace talks are dead

~~~

by Deb Riechmann, Matthew Lee, Robert Burns

Associated Press

Sept. 9, 2019

~~~

WASHINGTON — U.S. peace talks with the Taliban are now “dead,” President Donald Trump declared Monday, one day after he abruptly canceled a secret meeting he had arranged with Taliban and Afghan leaders aimed at ending America’s longest war.

Trump’s remark to reporters at the White House suggested he sees no point in resuming a nearly yearlong effort to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, whose protection of al-Qaida extremists in Afghanistan prompted the U.S. to invade after the 9/11 attacks.

Asked about the peace talks, Trump said, “They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead.”

It’s unclear whether Trump will go ahead with planned U.S. troop cuts and how the collapse of his talks will play out in deeply divided Afghanistan.

In his remarks to reporters Monday, Trump said his administration is “looking at” whether to proceed with troop reductions that had been one element of the preliminary deal with the Taliban struck by presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

“We’d like to get out, but we’ll get out at the right time,” Trump said.

What had seemed like a potential deal to end America’s longest war unraveled,  with Trump and the Taliban blaming each other for the collapse of nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

The insurgents are now promising more bloodshed, and American advocates of withdrawing from the battlefield questioned on Monday whether Trump’s decision to cancel what he called plans for a secret meeting with Taliban and Afghan leaders at the Camp David, Maryland, presidential retreat over the weekend had poisoned the prospects for peace.

“The Camp David ploy appears to have been an attempt to satisfy Trump’s obsession with carefully curated public spectacles — to seal the deal, largely produced by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators, with the president’s imprimatur,” said John Glaser director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Trump has been talking of a need to withdraw U.S. troops from the “endless war” in Afghanistan since his 2016 presidential campaign. And he said anew in a tweet on Monday, “We have been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and that was not meant to be the job of our Great Soldiers, the finest on earth.”

He added, without explanation, “Over the last four days, we have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years.”

There has been no evidence of a major U.S. military escalation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump’s weekend moves.

“When the Taliban tried to gain negotiating advantage by conducting terror attacks inside of the country, President Trump made the right decision to say that’s not going to work,” Pompeo said Sunday.

Trump said he called off negotiations because of a recent Taliban bombing in Kabul that killed a U.S. service member, even though nine other Americans have died since June 25 in Taliban-orchestrated violence. But the emerging agreement had started unraveling days earlier after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani postponed his trip to Washington and the Taliban refused to travel to the U.S. before a deal was signed, according to a former senior Afghan official.

As Trump’s re-election campaign heats up, his quest to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan remains unfulfilled — so far.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Jonathan Hoffman declined Monday to comment on the outlook for the administration’s plan to reduce the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan to 8,600.

Democrats said Trump’s decision to nix a deal with the Taliban was evidence that he was moving too quickly to get one. Far from guaranteeing a cease-fire, the deal only included Taliban commitments to reduce violence in Kabul and neighboring Parwan province, where the U.S. has a military base.

The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government it sees as illegitimate and a puppet of the West. So, the Trump administration tried another approach, negotiating with the Taliban first to get a deal that would lead to Taliban talks with Afghans inside and outside the government.

A U.S. official familiar with the Taliban negotiations said the “very closely held” idea of a Camp David meeting was first discussed up to a week and a half ago. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Some administration officials, including national security adviser John Bolton, did not back the agreement with the Taliban as it was written, the official said. They didn’t think the Taliban can be trusted. Bolton advised the president to draw down the U.S. force to 8,600 — enough to counter terror threats — and “let it be” until a better deal could be hammered out, the official said.

Khalilzad, the lead U.S. negotiator, recently announced that he had reached an agreement in principle with the Taliban. Under the deal, the U.S. would withdraw about 5,000 U.S. troops within 135 days of signing. In exchange, the insurgents agreed to reduce violence and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a launch pad for global terror attacks, including from a local Islamic State affiliate and al-Qaida.

Pompeo said the Taliban agreed to break with al-Qaida — something that past administrations have failed to get the Taliban to do.

The insurgent group hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as he masterminded the 9/11 attacks in 2001. After the attacks, the U.S. ousted the Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan with a harsh version of Islamic law from 1996 to 2000.

But problems quickly emerged. On Thursday, a second Taliban car bomb exploded near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, killing 12 people including a U.S. soldier. Khalilzad abruptly returned to Doha, Qatar for at least two days of negotiations with the Taliban. He has since been recalled to Washington.

It’s unclear if the talks will resume because the Taliban won’t trust future deals they negotiate with the U.S. if they think Trump might then change course, according to the former senior Afghan official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The official, who has discussed the peace process with U.S. and Afghan officials, said Khalilzad’s team was not aware of Trump’s plans to tweet the end of the talks Saturday evening.

Trump’s suspension of the negotiations “will harm America more than anyone else,” the Taliban said in a statement.

The former Afghan official said the deal fell apart for two main reasons. First, the Taliban refused to sign an agreement that didn’t state the end date for a complete withdrawal of American forces. That date was to be either November 2020, the same month of the U.S. presidential election, or January 2021, he said.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement was to be followed by Taliban talks with Afghans inside and outside the government to chart a political future for the country. Ghani told Khalilzad that putting a withdrawal date in the agreement would undermine the all-Afghan discourse before it began; the Taliban would have leverage in those negotiations from the get-go because the U.S. troops would be on a timeline to permanently withdraw.

Secondly, the U.S. was unsuccessful in convincing Ghani to postpone the Afghan presidential election set for Sept. 28, the official said. The U.S. argued that if the elections were held and Ghani won, his opponents and other anti-Ghani factions would protest the results, creating a political crisis that would make the all-Afghan talks untenable. Other disagreements included why the deal did not address the Taliban’s linkages to Pakistan and prisoner-hostage exchanges, the official said.

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Associated Press writers Cara Anna and Rahim Faiez in Kabul; Jonathan Lemire in Washington, and Julie Walker with AP Radio contributed to this report.

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https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/09/09/us-troop-reduction-in-afghanistan-unclear-as-trump-says-peace-talks-with-taliban-are-now-dead

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trump calls off secret meeting

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by Jonathan Lemire and Deb Riechmann

The Associated Press

Sept. 8, 2019

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Saturday he canceled a secret weekend meeting at Camp David with Taliban and Afghanistan leaders after a bombing in the past week in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier, and has called off peace negotiations with the insurgent group.

Trump’s tweet was surprising because it would mean that the president was ready to host members of the Taliban at the presidential retreat in Maryland just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to go after the Taliban, which were harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for 9/11.

Canceling the talks also goes against Trump’s pledge to withdraw the remaining 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and close U.S. involvement in the conflict that is closing in on 18 years.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s diplomat talking to the Taliban leaders for months, has said recently that he was on the “threshold” of an agreement with the Taliban aimed at ending America’s longest war. The president, however, has been under pressure from the Afghan government and some lawmakers, including Trump supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who mistrust the Taliban and think it’s too early to withdraw American forces.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” Trump tweeted Saturday evening.

“They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote.

On Thursday, a Taliban car bomb exploded and killed an American soldier, a Romanian service member and 10 civilians in a busy diplomatic area near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The bombing was one of many attacks by the Taliban in recent days during U.S.-Taliban talks.

The Defense Department says Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, was killed in action when the explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was the fourth U.S. service member killed in the past two weeks in Afghanistan.

“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse!” Trump tweeted. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

It remains unclear if the U.S.-Taliban talks are over or only paused. Trump said he called off the peace negotiations after the bombing, but Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy negotiating with the Taliban, was meeting with leaders of the insurgent group in Doha, Qatar, on both Thursday and Friday.

The State Department and the White House declined to respond to requests for clarification. There was no immediate response from the Afghan government as Kabul woke up hours after Trump’s announcement.

Many in the Afghan government, which has been sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks, and among the Afghan people have been skeptical of the negotiations, fearing there was little if nothing in the deal to stop the Taliban from continuing its attacks against civilians. The two shattering Taliban car bombings in Kabul in the past week, which the insurgent group said targeted foreigners but killed far more civilians, renewed those fears.

Longtime Afghanistan watchers, including former U.S. officials, apparently didn’t see this twist coming. After word emerged that a Washington visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been postponed, some assumed Ghani had been trying to make a last-minute effort to meet Trump to express concerns about the nearing deal.

“Whatever was the reason for inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David and whatever the real reason for pulling the plug, the peace process has been disrupted at least for the moment,” said Laurel Miller, Asia director for International Crisis Group.

“After all the violence during many months of negotiations, it’s difficult to see why last Thursday’s attack would be the sole reason for changing course. This could be a blow to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the peace process. Hopefully it can be brought back on track because there’s no better alternative,” Miller said.

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Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/09/08/trump-calls-off-secret-camp-david-meeting-with-taliban-afghan-leaders

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u.s. envoy returning to doha for new round of peace talks with taliban

Zalmay Khalilzad to resume talks with Taliban in Qatari capital to facilitate peace process to end war in Afghanistan.

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news agencies

Al Jazeera

Aug 20, 2019

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The United States special envoy to Afghanistan is heading to Qatar and the Afghan capital to resume peace talks aimed at ending 18 years of military intervention.

Zalmay Khalilzad will resume talks with the Taliban in Doha “as part of an overall effort to facilitate a peace process that ends the conflict in Afghanistan,” the US Department of State said in a statement on Tuesday.

In Kabul, he will consult with leaders of the Afghan government and encourage intra-Afghan negotiations, it said.

A breakthrough could pave the way for a withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, including some 14,000 US soldiers.

Khalilzad bolstered optimism for a peace agreement last week when he concluded the eighth round of negotiations with the Taliban, saying in a tweet he hoped this was the final year that the country was at war.

On Tuesday morning, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC television that a deal was possible, if the current level of violence in the country could be significantly reduced.

“The conversations are going well,” Pompeo said.

“What really happens on the ground, if we can reduce violence, we’ll create a space where we can withdraw not only American support but NATO forces that are there, as well.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group ~  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_the_Levant ~ claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in a wedding hall full of people in Kabul on Saturday that killed 63 people and wounded 182.

ISIL, who battle government forces and the Taliban, and have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in urban centres, will not be part of the deal between the US and the Taliban.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/envoy-returning-doha-taliban-peace-talks-190820173131453.html

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afghan rivals to meet in bid for peace

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news agencies

aljazeera

1 Jul 2019

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Rival Afghans will meet starting on Sunday in Qatar, officials said, in a fresh attempt to make political headway as the United States seeks a peace deal with the Taliban within three months.

The international efforts to bring warring Afghan sides to the negotiating table comes as the Taliban, which has been fighting the West-backed Kabul government, killed 16 in the latest attack in the capital.

The US special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been holding a seventh round of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, aimed at bringing the 18-year-old war to an end.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump said in an interview that he wants to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, but will leave a strong intelligence presence in the country to counter what he termed the “Harvard of terrorists.”

The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. A previous attempt to bring the armed group together with government officials in Doha collapsed in April in a dispute over attendees.

Germany, a key player in international support for the post-Taliban government, and Qatar, which maintains contacts with the armed group, said that they jointly extended invitations for a dialogue in Doha on Sunday and Monday.

‘Direct engagement between Afghans’

The Afghans “will participate only in their personal capacity and on an equal footing,” Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in a statement released on Monday by the US.

“Afghanistan stands at a critical moment of opportunity for progress towards peace,” he said.

“An essential component of any process leading to this objective will be direct engagement between Afghans,” he said.

But the Taliban spokesman insisted that they would not to talk to the Kabul government.

The meeting comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a previously unannounced visit last week to Kabul where he voiced hope for a peace deal with the Taliban “before September 1.”

The ambitious time frame would allow a deal before Afghanistan holds elections in September, which Western officials fear could inject a new dose of instability.

Trump wants to pull all US troops from Afghanistan, believing that the US’s longest war – launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks – no longer makes military or financial sense.

But he said the US will “be leaving very strong intelligence, far more than you would normally think,” in an interview with the Fox New Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“It just seems to be a lab for terrorists … I call it the Harvard of terrorists,” Trump said.

The Taliban have refused to halt their violence, believing that they have an upper hand as the US is eager to leave.

On Monday, at least 16 people were killed and dozens wounded – including 50 children – after the Taliban hit the defence ministry with a powerful bomb.

Gunmen then stormed a nearby building, triggering a gun battle with special forces. Most of the injured children were hurt by flying glass, officials said.

‘Seeking consensus’

Save the Children branded the attack “utterly deplorable,” warning that “children’s smaller bodies sustain more serious injuries than adults” and that the trauma of such attacks can stay with them for years.

Washington condemned the “brazen” and “callous” attack, but continued the seventh round of talks with the Taliban in Doha that started on Saturday.

“Once the timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set in the presence of international observers, then we will begin the talks to the Afghan sides, but we will not talk to the Kabul administration as a government,” tweeted Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman of the Taliban’s office in Qatar.

Under a peace deal, the US plans to pull its roughly 14,000 troops from Afghanistan.

In return, the Taliban would provide assurances that they would never allow their territory to be a base for foreign attacks – the primary reason for the US invasion in 2001.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator with the Taliban, said that dialogue among Afghans was an essential part of a peace deal.

“Mutual acceptance, seeking consensus, and agreeing to resolve political differences without force is what is needed to learn from the tragedy of the last 40 years,” Khalilzad said, referring to Afghanistan’s nearly incessant conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

“I wish participants success,” he tweeted.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/taliban-afghan-rivals-set-meet-fresh-bid-peace-190702021725938.html

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a synopsis of the u.s./taliban peace talks

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by Shereena Qazi

Aljazeera

29 June 2019

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United States officials and Taliban representatives are meeting in Qatar’s capital for a seventh time since October in a bid to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

The latest round of direct talks, which got under way in Doha on Saturday, is focused on four key issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow fighters to use Afghanistan to launch attacks outside the country, the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.

The Taliban government was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led military coalition for sheltering al-Qaeda, the group blamed for the 9/11 attacks in the US.

The Afghan government, however, is not involved in the talks as the Taliban has refused to negotiate with it, deeming it illegitimate and a “puppet” of the US.

Following the end of the sixth round of negotiations with the Taliban in May, the US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that “faster progress” was needed as “the conflict rages” and “innocent people die”.

But analysts say peace has never been closer in Afghanistan since the talks between the US and the Taliban began.

Separately, three meetings have been held since 2017 in Moscow between the Taliban and senior Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held a grand council in Kabul with politicians and tribal, ethnic and religious leaders to discuss the talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha.

But as these initiatives remain in the spotlight, deep divisions among the Afghan government and politicians complicate efforts to establish peace in Afghanistan.

What has been agreed to so far in US-Taliban talks?

Khalilzad, an Afghan-American diplomat who served as US ambassador to the United Nations (2007-2009), Iraq (2005-2007) and Afghanistan (2003-2005), is leading the US side in the Doha talks.

The Taliban is represented by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the group’s office chief, and cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released in October last year from a Pakistani prison.

The Taliban has long demanded the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which has been a sticking point in the meetings between the US and the group in Doha.

In previous rounds of talks, the two sides had agreed on a “draft framework” that included the withdrawal of US troops, a discussion on Taliban’s commitment that the Afghan territory would not be used by international “terror” groups, and that a ceasefire would be implemented across the country.

But the Taliban insists it will not commit to any of these things until the US announces a withdrawal timeline.

The sixth round of talks last month ended with “some progress” on a draft agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops, according to a Taliban official.

Khalilzad said at the time the talks with the Taliban on ending Afghanistan’s war were making slow but steady progress, while signalling a growing frustration with deadly attacks in the country.

“We made steady but slow progress on aspects of the framework for ending the Afghan war. We are getting into the nitty-gritty. The devil is always in the details,” Khalilzad said.

“However, the current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die. We need more and faster progress. Our proposal for all sides to reduce violence also remains on the table.”

In June, both sides said there was an understanding on the withdrawal but the details, including a timeline, had not been worked out yet.

This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a trip to Kabul that the US was close to wrapping up the draft agreement with the Taliban on counterterrorism. He hoped a peace agreement could be reached by Sept 1.

Why is the Afghan government excluded?

The Taliban has long refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which has repeatedly invited the group for talks with no success.

Washington also initially tried to get the Taliban to agree to talking with Kabul. When the Taliban refused to budge, the US was left with no option but to enter into the talks.

The group has given several reasons on why it is not willing to talk to the Afghan government.

Since the Taliban was overthrown by the US-led military intervention in 2001, the Taliban maintains that the country has been occupied by foreign forces.

It says the Kabul government has no real power and considers it a “puppet regime”. The group says any engagement with the government would grant it legitimacy.

In June, Ghani decreed the formation of a peace ministry, headed by his top aide, Abdul Salam Rahimi, to encourage direct talks with the Taliban.

What can cause US-Taliban talks to collapse?

Dawood Azami, an academic and journalist who works as a multimedia editor at BBC World Service in London, said a peace deal could only be possible when both parties were flexible and willing to make concessions.

“The lack of consensus in Kabul, the failure of the Afghan government and the non-Taliban Afghans in general, to agree on the appointment of an inclusive and authoritative negotiating team able to negotiate with the Taliban will prove a major challenge and could result in a breakdown,” he said.

“I think the next phase of talks among the Afghans [generally termed as intra-Afghan dialogue] will prove more challenging than the first [US-Taliban talks]”.

Peter Galbraith, former US diplomat and ex-UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said if any peace deal was to happen, there would be several hurdles before it was implemented, which he felt was a sign of its possible collapse.

“The deal-breakers are the possibility of exceptionally violent and gruesome Taliban attacks; the refusal of Afghan government to go along; a refusal of the Tajiks and Hazaras to accept a deal [even if approved by President Ashraf Ghani]; and a Taliban belief that it can prevail militarily without a deal,” he said.

“But the biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed.”

Galbraith said the US President Donald Trump administration’s determination to withdraw, regardless of the consequences, was probably the single most important factor in making a US-Taliban deal possible.

Why is Taliban refusing calls for ceasefire?

Intense fighting continues across the country even as the Taliban remains in talks with the US. The group now controls or holds influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since 2001.

“As the peace talks are entering an important phase, the Taliban want to maximize their leverage and speak from a position of strength at the negotiating table,” Azami said.

“In addition, the Taliban leadership is under pressure from their military commanders not to agree to a ceasefire before achieving a tangible goal.”

The armed group has also said on several occasions that there will be no ceasefire until the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

When the loya jirga (grand council) called for an immediate ceasefire between the government and Taliban during the holy month of Ramadan, Ghani agreed to a truce provided it was not “one-sided”.

However, the Taliban rejected the call for a ceasefire, saying waging a war during Ramadan had “even more rewards”.

In an interview with Tolo News, Afghanistan’s largest private television station, Khalilzad said last month that any peace agreement with the armed group would depend on the declaration of a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the war.

“If the Taliban insist on going back to the system they used to have, in my personal opinion it means the continuation of war, not peace,” Khalilzad said.

What is the Afghan president’s loya jirga?

Last month, the Afghan president held a loya jirga, a grand assembly which brought together more than 3,200 participants, including politicians, tribal elders and other prominent figures from across the country.

The council, which sought to hammer out a shared strategy for future negotiations with Taliban, ended with delegates demanding an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire.

The meeting, traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances, was held in a bid to build consensus among various ethnic groups and tribal factions over restoring peace in Afghanistan.

However, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Ghani, and Karzai, the former president, were among a number of senior figures who boycotted the gathering, accusing the president of using it for political ends ahead of presidential elections scheduled for September 28.

On its website, the Taliban said there had been progress in negotiations with the US and the loya jirga was an “obstacle for ending occupation” and was “sabotaging the authentic peace process”.

Moscow talks

In February this year, a two-day conference was held in the Russian capital between the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians in a bid to lay down a plan for ending the war.

The meeting in Russia was the first public contact in years between the Taliban and prominent Afghans, including Karzai.

But Ghani dismissed the Moscow talks, saying those attending carried no negotiating authority.

In May, a delegation of Taliban negotiators, who met Afghan politicians in Moscow, said “decent progress” was made at talks but there was no breakthrough.

“The Islamic Emirate wants peace but the first step is to remove obstacles to peace and end the occupation of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s Baradar said.

What if the peace talks collapse?

A United Nations report released earlier this year said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan’s war than any other year on record.

Civilian deaths jumped by 11 percent from 2017 to 3,804 people killed, including 927 children, and another 7,189 people wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan.

In another report released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in May, Afghan and international forces, including NATO, killed more civilians in the first three months of this year than the Taliban or fighters from other armed groups.

At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, 52.5 percent of all deaths in that period.

With the spike in violence, there is a growing desperation for peace among ordinary Afghans. “If the talks collapse, fighting will further intensify and the Afghan people will suffer more,” Azami said.

“The Taliban would try to increase their territorial control and put maximum pressure on the Afghan government by attempting to capture cities, including provincial capitals and taking control of major highways,” he said.

Azami said the Afghans and the rest of the world would have to deal with a “possible security vacuum in which groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL found fertile ground”.

“Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but to the whole region and rest of the world,” he said.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/taliban-talks-peace-afghanistan-190510062940394.html

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