Where the US-Afghan Peace Talks Stand. Can Khalilzad Pull off a Deal?

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Feb. 5, President Donald Trump said of US involvement in Afghanistan, “As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

In Moscow, that day, conflicting remarks by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, leader of the Taliban peace delegation, indicated where matters stand in the 18-year war.

The aim, he said, “was not to seize the whole country by military power” because “It will not bring peace to Afghanistan.” After that reasonable remark, the Taliban official laid down prohibitive conditions for “peace” in his first interview to the international media during a meeting with Afghan opposition leaders in Moscow,

Until recently head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, Stanikzai went on to say that Taliban had learned from its experience in power in the 1990s – when faced with rival Afghan groups – that it was preferable to solve problems by “coming to the table.” But he also said: “Peace is more difficult than war.”

The veteran US diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, understands the problems of inter-Afghan rivalries in sorting out the country’s issues better than most. Born in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, 67 years ago, his long Washington career spans service under four Republican presidents, including ambassadorships to Kabul and Baghdad. The highest-ranking Muslim in the second Bush administration, Khalilzad is a Sunni and an ethnic Pashtun. In January, he spent six days meeting with the various Afghan insurgent groups in Doha, before reaching what he called the “draft framework” of an agreement. On Jan. 27, he came to Kabul, where he grew up, to brief the Afghan leadership.

The draft mainly embraces two key unresolved topics: the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and Taliban guarantees against allowing Al Qaeda-style Islamist terrorist groups to return. According to time-honored custom, the issues were turned over to two “working groups.” They were tasked with preparing proposals and decisions for bringing to the table at the next round of negotiations in Doha on Feb. 25. Next, the major powers will be asked to step in, along with the UN and officials of Islamic countries, who will serve as “guarantors” for future assurances that foreign troops do indeed leave Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has assured the insurgents that the US would withdraw its combat troops “only in return for the Taliban’s entering talks with the Afghan government and agreeing to a lasting ceasefire.” He laid down the principle that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

DEBKA Weekly’s analysts have broken “everything” down into eight points at issue:

1. The Taliban says unconditionally: “Until the issue of foreign forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is agreed on, progress on other issues is impossible.”

2. The US demands that the Taliban enter into a “comprehensive” – countrywide and long-term – three-month ceasefire and open an intra-Afghan dialogue.

3. Taliban demands confidence-building steps, such as the lifting of UN sanctions on Taliban leaders and granting their freedom to travel.

4. The release of detainees, which Taliban calculates as “tens of thousands” of prisoners held in “secret and open prisons.”

5. The Taliban has refused to join or be integrated in the current ruling system and lay down arms, as this would be tantamount to surrender. Its leaders are demanding “reform,” including a new constitution drafted by “Afghan [religious]scholars and intellectuals.” In a word, another theocratic political system.

6. The Taliban is insisting on an interim government being established of which it would be a part.

7. Both the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani want the Rand paper clarified. A document is going around Kabul in recent weeks, titled “Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan,” which contains some of the topics addressed in Doha and is marked “a work in progress.” Several options are offered. Since Khalilzad worked for this think tank between 1993 and 2000, and the document goes into great detail, many Afghans suspect that the agreement was put together over their heads.

8. The American diplomat has run into strong resistance from the ruling establishment in Kabul headed by President Ghani. They are clamoring for an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process. Officialdom in Kabul wants the government, not the United States, to be the central figure for directly engaging the Taliban. However, Taliban leaders refuse to negotiate with Ghani and are holding meetings with US officials in Qatar. As far as the Afghan president is concerned, any agreement negotiated by US diplomats will not lead to lasting peace but foredoom Afghanistan to yet another war.

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