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Revived Attempt At Afghan Peace Talks Between U.S.-Taliban Brings Hope

The Taliban spokesman claimed that besides Baradar's appointment, the Taliban leadership has made “multiple changes” in its military and civilian departments

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Afghanistan
A Taliban fighter sits on his motorcycle adorned with a Taliban flag on a street in Kunduz, Afghanistan. VOA

There are signs of progress in the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar, leading some to think they could set the stage for a politically negotiated settlement to the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The talks opened Monday with the U.S. team led by Washington’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. Pakistani and Qatari envoys also are present.

As the discussions entered a fourth day Thursday, highly placed sources told VOA the two sides have covered “significant” ground in their bid to reach an understanding on the two most difficult issues being negotiated in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state, where the Afghan insurgent group operates its political office.

The Taliban announced at the outset that its representatives would be seeking a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. and NATO-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, while the Taliban side would give assurances that Afghan soil would not be used to threaten the United States or any other country.

USA, Afghanistan, Peace Talks
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, now the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, speaks in Washington, D.C., April 27, 2016. VOA

Sources anticipate the Taliban could announce a temporary cease-fire in the event of progress on its key demand of a foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The peace dialogue started last summer and Pakistan reiterated Thursday it has brought the two sides to the table to help find a peaceful end to the increasingly bloody Afghan war. Islamabad insists it has convinced the Taliban to engage in a productive dialogue with the U.S. and the two negotiating teams would be solely responsible for its “success or failure.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed Pakistan is represented at the talks but gave no further details about any possible breakthrough.

“Pakistan, as part of its shared responsibility, is facilitating the ongoing round of talks between [the] U.S. and the Taliban in Doha. Negotiations are between the two parties, that is the U.S. and the Taliban. Pakistan and Qatar are providing the necessary support and are facilitating the talks,” Mohammad Faisal noted.

Faisal insisted that “taking the Afghan peace process forward remained a shared responsibility.” He went on to say that “ultimately the intra-Afghan dialogue would be vital to agree upon the contours of a future Afghan policy where Afghanistan becomes a stable and prosperous country and at peace with its neighbors.”

Taliban, Afghanistan
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. VOA

It remains unclear whether U.S. negotiators have persuaded Taliban representatives to engage in direct talks with the government. The militants have long opposed recognizing the elected government, insisting it is illegitimate.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have played their role in influencing the insurgents, and their representatives were present in the last round of U,S.-Taliban talks hosted by Abu Dhabi in December.

Diplomatic sources privy to the current negotiations tell VOA that because the U.S. has already shown willingness to draw down troops from Afghanistan, they believe “the Taliban will also have to concede something for an agreement” to move the process forward. If the Doha dialogue secures “even a limited conditional cease-fire,” the sources say, it would be a major development because it will “practically make a political reconciliation process irreversible.”

New head of Qatar office

Meanwhile, in what some observers call a significant development to win support of military commanders on the ground, the Taliban appointed its co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the new head of the Qatar political office conducting the meetings with Khalilzad,

Taliban, afghanistan, peace
Taliban fighters are seen in Shindand district, Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27 2016. VOA

A spokesman for the insurgent group, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced late Thursday that the induction of Baradar is meant to “strengthen and properly handle the ongoing negotiations” with the American side. Additionally, Baradar will also serve as the deputy political affairs to Taliban chief Hibatullah Akundzada, Mujahid wrote in a statement released to media.

“With the appointment of the esteemed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the negotiation team of the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) will continue their talks with the United States and will not bring about any change,” noted the Taliban spokesman.

Baradar hails from southern Afghanistan and he is still believed to be highly respected among the Taliban. He had been under United Nations financial and travel sanctions since February 2001.

Also Read: Afghan Women Fear Recurring Oppression If Taliban Becomes Part Of The Government

The Taliban spokesman claimed that besides Baradar’s appointment, the Taliban leadership has made “multiple changes” in its military and civilian departments “so that the ongoing jihadi process and political efforts can develop positively.”

Baradar, a former Taliban military commander and close associate of the Islamist group’s founding leader Mullah Omar, had been in Pakistan’s custody for more than eight years before he was set free last October at Washington’s request, hoping his involvement in direct peace talks with the insurgent group would boost the peace process.

The senior Afghan insurgent leader was captured in 2010 in a joint raid by Pakistani and American security operatives against his hideout in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. He was the group’s second-in-command at the time of his arrest. (VOA)

Next Story

Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

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Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

ALSO READ: Trump Secure The Higher Ground On Criminal Justice Issues in 2020 Campaign

Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)