The Taliban has said that its engagement with the United States for negotiating an end to “the war and illegitimate occupation” of Afghanistan remains on track, ruling out once again any direct peace talks with the government in Kabul
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA a new round of discussions with the U.S. is in the cards but dates and a venue have not yet been determined.
He was responding to and rejected as “false claims” reports that insurgent negotiators were planning to hold direct talks with Afghan officials in Saudi Arabia later this month.
U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, held two days of marathon talks in mid December with a high-powered Taliban delegation in Abu Dhabi, where envoys of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the host country also were in attendance.
The Pakistani government took credit for arranging the meeting in the United Arab Emirates following Khalilzad’s preliminary interactions with Taliban representatives based in Qatar.
“There has been no interruption in the dialogue process with America because ending the occupation of Afghanistan is now a compulsion for them [U.S.],” said Mujahid.
He asserted that if talks fail to achieve the desired results and the war continues with the Taliban “the Americans would have no option but to be driven out of Afghanistan.”
In a separate statement issued via Taliban social media, Mujahid appeared upbeat, however, about the outcome of the series of negotiations held with the Americans.
“We can say with certainty that they indeed proved effective. They have given birth to hope that should the negotiations continue with such speed, then it is possible that foreign aggression be brought to an end, following which peace will be established,” the Taliban spokesman said.
He defended Taliban’s stance for not holding talks with the Afghan government, dismissing them as the product of “foreign occupation” of Afghanistan, with no “authority or ability” to end to the conflict.
President Donald Trump reportedly is weighing options about whether to significantly reduce the more than 14,000 forces currently stationed in Afghanistan.
The reports have worried officials in Kabul and foreign critics who maintain the drawdown would leave no incentive for the Taliban to halt fighting and seek a negotiated settlement to the war.
Mujahid mocked Afghan officials for urging Trump to review his drawdown plans, saying “the Afghan people saw the quislings at Kabul letting out screams.”
The Taliban maintains the U.S. is its main adversary in the Afghan war and views direct talks with Washington as a legitimate effort to seek withdrawal of foreign troops before engaging in an intra-Afghan peace dialogue.
The 17-year war in Afghanistan is the longest overseas American military intervention in history. It has cost nearly a trillion dollars and killed roughly 150,000 people. Civilians, security forces, including more than 2,400 U.S. troops, and insurgents are among those killed.
U.S. military officials appear to be positioning themselves to tackle various possible outcomes of the talks with the Taliban.
General Austin Scott Miller,who commands U.S. and NATO-led non-combat Resolution Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan,told his troops last Tuesday to be ready to deal with “positive processes or negative consequences.” He nevertheless underscored the need for a political settlement to end the Afghan war.
“Peace talks [are] out there, regional players are pressing for peace, the Taliban is talking about peace, the Afghan government is talking about peace,” Miller told dozens of NATO soldiers during a routine exercise session at RS headquarters in Kabul.
“Are [the RS] able to adapt? Are we able to adjust? Are we able to be in the right place to support positive processes and negative consequences, that’s what I ask you guys to think about in 2019,” Miller said. (VOA)
Zalmay Khalilzad, the man responsible for overseeing America’s negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, arrived Tuesday night in Kabul, after making stops in India, the United Arab Emirates, and China. He is expected to visit Islamabad next.
His outreach to regional players continues despite what seems like a setback in talks with the Taliban.
“The [dialogue] process has halted for now so the venue and the date for a future meeting are not known,” a senior Taliban official who is privy to the developments confirmed to VOA earlier this week when asked whether their peace talks with the U.S. were still on track.
Talks scheduled with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia earlier this month were called off by the insurgent group after it came under pressure by the host government to meet with representatives of the current Afghan government.
The insurgent group pushed to change the venue to Doha, Qatar, but later canceled those talks as well over disagreements on the agenda.
The last significant round of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban was held in December in Abu Dhabi. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the host government also took part in that round.
The Afghan government sent a delegation to Abu Dhabi in hopes of joining the talks, but the Taliban refused to meet them.
The group so far has resisted pressure from multiple actors, including the U.S., to meet with the Kabul administration, calling it a “puppet” regime unable to deliver on their demands.
The U.S. goal, according to a statement issued by its embassy in Kabul, is to “encourage the parties to come together at the negotiating table to reach a political settlement.”
Khalilzad will meet with President Ashraf Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and political leaders to “discuss the next steps in U.S. efforts to support and facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” the statement added.
A feud among Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar also seems to be damaging the process, say various media reports. According to the Reuters news agency, Saudi and UAE diplomats refused to take part in any meeting held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an unofficial political office. The two countries severed ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing the Gulf state of funding militants – a charge Doha denies.
In December, it was reported that President Donald Trump told the Pentagon to prepare for the withdrawal of 7,000 American military personnel from Afghanistan, which would reduce the U.S. presence in the country by half.
The U.S. fulfilled a major Taliban demand last year of talking directly to the Americans, in an effort to jumpstart a peace process. Since then, several rounds of negotiations between the two have been held, albeit without the Kabul administration.
Meanwhile, security in Afghanistan continues to present a major challenge. An attack in Kabul Monday killed several people and wounded dozens of others. (VOA)