KABUL —Afghan delegates flew to Qatar Tuesday to reopen peace talks with Taliban leaders amid a rash of mutual recriminations — as well as a continued spate of assassinations targeting prominent civilians.© Press Information Department/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A picture released by Press Information Department shows a delegation of Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Baradar Ghani talking with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Islamabad, Dec. 18, 2020.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat who brokered a separate U.S. deal with the Taliban in February, arrived in Kabul Tuesday from Doha, the Qatari capital and Taliban political base. He tweeted that he hoped “both sides” would make “real compromises” that would lead to “tangible progress” in the talks, which began in September but have failed to address any major issues.
But while both Afghan and Taliban officials have issued recent statements saying they were committed to the talks and hoped to settle the country’s 19-year conflict through discussions, their messages were tinged with anger and blame that boded ill for the new round. Some observers in Kabul predicted the talks, which are resuming after a two-week holiday hiatus, would likely collapse.[Taliban carrying out campaign of terror in Afghan capital ahead of peace talks next week]
The “demand of Afghanistan’s people is that the bloodshed should end forever in this country,” Massoom Stanekzai, a former national intelligence chief who heads the Kabul delegation, said in a video message posted Tuesday on Twitter. “Afghanistan people suffer from the terror that the war has created every day, every night, every moment.”
The Taliban, sidestepping the issue of civilian killings, issued a harsh statement Monday that lashed out at the U.S. government, denouncing U.S. military air strikes on civilian areas. It warned that “such pernicious actions” could both threaten their February pact and also “jeopardize” progress in resolving issues among Afghans, “turning nascent hopes to despair.”
American military officials here responded with unusual speed and sharpness, saying Monday that U.S. stated policy is to “defend Afghan forces” against Taliban attacks. For the first time, they also directly blamed the insurgents for carrying out the recent spate of targeted killings of journalists, civic leaders and government officials.
Taliban spokesmen have denied similar charges by Afghan officials and suggested that they amount to a “survival tactic” by the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who narrowly won reelection last year but has lost public support as violence and economic problems persist.
“The Taliban’s accusations [that] the US violated the US-TB agreement are false,” tweeted Col. Sonny Leggett, the U.S. military spokesman here. “The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks & targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must also cease for peace to succeed.”© M Sadiq/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Afghan President Ashraf Ghani greets supporters during his visit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 17, 2020.
The status of the U.S.-Taliban pact, while seemingly unrelated to the domestic issues of religion, power-sharing and democratic freedoms that Afghan and Taliban leaders are slated to negotiate, is a critical but highly contested factor in the Afghan talks.
Under that deal, the Trump administration agreed to gradually withdraw most U.S. troops by early this year, acceding to the insurgents’ most important demand. There are now about 5,000 troops in the country and that number is slated to drop to 2,500 by next month. In return, Taliban negotiators agreed to reduce violence, avoid targeting American forces and cut ties with al-Qaeda and other extremists.
Many Afghans say the Taliban have failed to fulfill those pledges and that the U.S. concessions gave the religious militia too much leverage over a weak Afghan government at the current talks. The insurgents, meanwhile, are worried that the incoming Biden administration will set further conditions before continuing the promised troop drawdown.
At the moment, though, the message from Washington, amid a tense and contested presidential transition, is confused. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the Taliban for not killing any Americans since the pact was signed, suggesting that it will hold. The next day, the U.S. military denounced the rash of civilian killings as an obstacle to peace.
Khalilzad, who is meeting with Pakistani, Afghan and Taliban leaders during his current regional visit in an effort to improve the chances for revived talks, called the targeted killings “unacceptable” but did not directly accuse the Taliban.
He also hinted at problems on the Afghan side, in which there are sharp divisions between President Ashraf Ghani and some negotiators. Ghani is determined to finish out his five-year term, but critics insist that an interim government must be installed because the Taliban refuse to recognize his administration and will never make peace with it.
Taliban officials, while pointedly noting Pompeo’s positive comments, declared in a statement Monday that they are now “in a relatively stronger political and military position” than at any previous time. For months, the insurgents have waged a relentless and deadly campaign of attacks against Afghan targets across the country.
Their efforts to act as a “responsible party” and resolve differences with fellow Afghans at the table, they said, “should never be read as weakness.”
Sharif Hassan contributed to this story.Targeted killings of journalists are on the rise across Afghanistan Assassins silence another ‘voice of Afghan democracy’ in Kabul killing Behind the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda: A shared ideology and decades of battlefield support.
Source: The Washintong Post