The end of America’s longest war might be coming sooner than expected. According to the Associated Press, the US and Taliban have “resolved” their differences on a US withdrawal, apparently trading for the Taliban’s denunciation of outside terror networks. If that’s the “excellent progress” the US envoy extolled, then Ashraf Ghani’s headaches are coming sooner than expected, too:
The United States and the Taliban have resolved differences in peace talks over the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and guarantees from the insurgents that they will cut ties with other extremist groups, a Taliban official said Tuesday.
The U.S. side did not immediately provide details about the latest round of talks held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office. But Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy who has been leading the talks since they began late last year, tweeted that they had made “excellent progress.”
The two sides have been meeting for the last two days, and technical teams were continuing discussions on Tuesday in Doha. The Taliban official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the negotiations.
CBS also picked up on the report, which the State Department refused to confirm or deny. Zalmay Khalilzad’s assessment tended toward the former rather than the latter, however:
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been tasked with finding a peaceful resolution to the nearly 18-year war, America’s longest conflict, has made intra-Afghan talks and a permanent cease-fire two of his priorities in the negotiations. …
The U.S. side did not immediately confirm or provide details of what was resolved but the U.S. envoy reported “excellent progress” in the talks. A State department spokesperson told CBS News, “There are still details to discuss. As a result, there is no agreement yet. Any agreement we conclude will be condition-based. We are pursuing a peace agreement, not a withdrawal agreement.”
What about the “intra-Afghan talks” that Khalilzad made one of his highest priorities? Er …
However, the talks in Qatar have sidelined the government in Kabul. The Taliban refuse to talk directly with government representatives, accusing President Ashraf Ghani’s government of being a puppet of the U.S.
Ghani will stand for re-election next month, assuming that the elections come off as planned. While Khalilzad discusses US troop withdrawals with the Taliban, the Taliban issues warnings that they will attack election infrastructure and political rallies. So much for intra-Afghan talks, eh?
Taliban militants announced Tuesday that they intend to disrupt Afghanistan’s presidential campaign and polls slated for Sept. 28. Their statement came just hours after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reported he had made “excellent progress” during talks with the insurgents in Qatar.
The group urged voters to stay away from election events, saying it did not want to harm them. But after a bomb and gun attack July 28 killed 20 people at the Kabul office of one vice-presidential candidate, Afghan media reported that another candidate has canceled a rally planned near the capital.
In a statement on its website, the Taliban said the elections would have “no legitimacy” because the country is “under occupation.” It called the elections “a ploy to deceive the common people” and said the “ultimate decision-making power” lies with foreigners who are running the process.
They did have something positive to say about the peace talks, however:
In its statement, the Taliban alluded positively to the peace talks, saying that “negotiations are underway to bring an end to the occupation and arrangements for intra-Afghan understanding are being put into place.” The elections, they said, are aimed only at “satisfying the ego of a limited number of sham politicians.”
It’s tough to admit this, but the Taliban may have a point about the election, although obviously not about targeting participants for terror attacks. If the US is cutting the Ghani government out of the talks and discussing a full withdrawal — as Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded — then Ghani’s current government is a lame duck and the elections are pointless. A full US withdrawal will at the least require a new calculation of leadership with the Taliban fully engaged in domestic politics (and that’s the best case scenario). If an election is followed shortly afterward with a peace agreement, the election will have been mooted. Under the circumstances, it might be best to postpone the elections and allow for the Taliban to engage in post-withdrawal politics normally.
Let’s not have any misconceptions about what will follow an American withdrawal. either. The Taliban might try engaging in the political process to vie for power, but it’s far more likely that they will use violence to seize it instead. The country was in a decades-long tribal civil war long before the US arrived, and even before the Soviets arrived, and it will continue after we leave. If the Taliban succeed, and every indication is that they will after the US pulls out, they will reimpose their extreme version of shari’a law as their governing principle and create even more hardship and conflict.
What follows will not be peace. It will, however, also not be a national security issue for the US and the West unless the Taliban once again makes it so — and one has to figure that the Taliban learned that lesson well enough not to repeat it.
Meanwhile, here’s NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pursuing wishful thinking today, clearly hopeful that NATO can put Afghanistan in its rear-view mirror.