As Taliban Advance, Biden Officials Cling to Hope for Afghan Peace
WASHINGTON – As Taliban fighters make surprisingly rapid progress across Afghanistan, officials in the Biden administration continue to base their hopes on a peace deal that would end the country’s relentless violence with a sharing deal. power.
They stressed, at least in their public statements, that the peace process could be successful, even if the US military pulls out of the country and critics say the talks should be declared a charade and abandoned.
But now, even the most encouraging American officials are increasingly conceding in public what they have previously said in private: that the prospects of a negotiated outcome, which could partly save America’s 20-year project in Afghanistan, seem to fade quickly.
President Biden’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, drew a pessimistic assessment of what he called the “difficult situation” in the country and the wide gaps between the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators.
“They are distant from each other,” Khalilzad said during an appearance at the annual Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday. Privately, US officials are even more pessimistic.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with the second Afghan government official, Abdullah Abdullah, and “discussed ways to speed up the peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement,” said the State Department in a statement.
It was the latest public expression of the Biden administration’s support for talks known as the “intra-Afghan dialogue,” which began last September as part of an agreement between the Trump administration and the United Nations. Taliban who paved the way for the withdrawal of US forces. . Meetings between Taliban leaders and Afghan government officials continue sporadically in Doha, Qatar, including a session in mid-July.
The prospect of a peace deal gives Biden officials something of hope to report amid accusations that by withdrawing troops from the country they abandoned America’s Afghan allies to conquer the Taliban and to a severe theocratic regime.
But Biden officials have struggled in recent weeks to allay fears the group has cynically exploited the peace talks to buy time and provide political cover for an exit from the United States.
“The Taliban must stop this ongoing violence; they have to stop him, ”State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Wednesday. He said the Taliban have an inherent interest in avoiding the endless civil war that is likely to persist in the absence of a power-sharing agreement.
But Price admitted that the group’s escalating violence – including a recent Kabul bombing outside the home of the acting Afghan defense minister – had shaken confidence in such assumptions.
“The Taliban leadership continues to say one thing, which is that they support a negotiated solution to the conflict,” Price said, adding that “those words ring hollow” amid the continued attacks.
Even as they storm villages and towns across the country, raising questions about whether Afghan security forces can defend major cities, including the capital, Kabul, Taliban leaders are insisting on the fact that they have a genuine interest in a peace agreement.
Last month, Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada said in a statement that “despite military gains and advances” by his forces, “the Islamic Emirate is vigorously promoting a political settlement in the country.” The Islamic Emirate is what the Taliban called their government when they were in power.
The statement came as representatives of the Taliban met with Afghan government officials, including Mr. Abdullah, for a series of talks in Doha. US officials say the meeting was hardly successful, although Khalilzad tried to adopt an optimistic tone afterwards.
“There is more that unites than divides parties”, he wrote on Twitter.
But when rockets fell near the presidential palace in Kabul at the end of the talks, President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban had “neither the intention nor the will to make peace.”
And in an address to his country’s parliament this week, Mr. Ghani – who has felt compelled to the negotiating table by the United States – complained of an “imported and rushed” peace process. “The Taliban do not believe in a lasting or just peace,” he added.
Mr. Ghani has a personal interest in the talks. One sticking point has been a demand from the Taliban that he resign as part of a transition to a new government. Mr. Ghani insists he is the country’s rightful elected leader.
But the group’s demands are broader. In a report on the Afghan peace process earlier this year, the nonprofit International Crisis Group found that Afghan officials “fear that a political settlement, under the current circumstances, will overturn the constitutional order that has been erected. over the past two decades and essentially restore the Taliban to Power. “
Mr Khalilzad said on Tuesday that the Taliban were claiming “the lion’s share” of power in a new government – and using their military gains as leverage.
“They’re trying to affect each other’s math, and the terms, by what they’re doing on the battlefield,” he said.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Non-State Armed Actors Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the only negotiations the Taliban now take seriously are attempts to strike unofficial deals with the warlords Afghans and other power intermediaries, in an effort to peel away government support and help organize a takeover of much or all of the country.
“The Taliban are not interested in serious negotiations at this time because of what is happening on the battlefield,” Felbab-Brown said. “Essentially, what the Taliban put on the table” in talks with Afghan officials in Doha “are conditions for surrender”.
Mr. Khalilzad, who tried to keep the peace process alive, was appointed by President Donald J. Trump and has become a rare holdover of that administration in the present day – in part through personal ties to Mr. Biden, who it happened to. find out when Mr. Biden was a senator and Mr. Khalilzad was an official in the George W. Bush administration.
In a 2016 brief, Mr. Khalilzad recounted a trip by Mr. Biden in early 2002 to Kabul. Mr Khalilzad, then a visiting presidential envoy, was forced to organize a late night tea party so that Mr Biden, who in a fit of spite had threatened to release a B-52 on an Afghan leader, could reconnect with the man. Mr Biden spent the night in a sleeping bag on the floor of a US Embassy conference room and stood in line for the shower the next morning “wearing only a towel,” he said. Mr. Khalilzad recounted, turning to pose happily for a Marine behind him. him who said he wanted a picture for his mother.
These days, Mr. Khalilzad spends less time in Doha or Kabul than he visits neighboring countries. The United States hopes it will pressure the Taliban to moderate its extremist approach.
But Russia and Iran recently hosted Taliban representatives for talks, a sign that these countries are positioning themselves to deal with the group if it takes all or part of political power in Afghanistan.
Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, said the Biden administration – aware of many other competing interests in the region – did not appear willing to pressure China and Russia to the extent necessary for these countries to take a tougher stance on the Taliban.
Mr Watkins said that, bleak as the outlook is today, it is important for US officials to keep the peace process alive.
If the Afghan government can strengthen its defenses, defend big cities like Kabul and fight the Taliban to a deadlock in the coming months, the group could choose to return to the negotiating table, he said. .
“It is absolutely always helpful to keep an open channel of dialogue alive,” he said. “Letting the talks completely collapse” would mean that, if both sides decide they can better achieve their goals through politics and not violence, “they would start from square one”.
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