Whirl­wind ne­go­ti­a­tions bring U.S., Tal­iban close to map for peace.

Hur­dles re­main, but pact could be in place by July

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

A whirl­wind round of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Washington and the Tal­iban have brought Afghanistan closer to the brink of peace than ever be­fore, but a num­ber of diplo­matic hur­dles could de­rail the Amer­i­can-led ef­fort to end the U.S. con­flict in South­west Asia.

U.S. Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghanistan Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Zal­may Khalilzad said late last week that his team of ne­go­tia­tors and their Tal­iban coun­ter­parts agreed, in prin­ci­ple, to a roadmap for peace.

That progress, made dur­ing marathon talks be­tween the two sides in the Qatari city of Doha over the last month, have ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials con­fi­dent a for­mal peace pact could be in place as soon as July.

“There is suf­fi­cient time where we could reach an agree­ment” by that month, which is when Afghanistan is slated to hold na­tion­wide pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Mr. Khalilzad said Fri­day.

“We want to see the war end in Afghanistan. We want the war to end this year,” the long­time U.S. diplo­mat and Afghan na­tive said dur­ing a brief­ing on the ne­go­ti­a­tions at the Washington-based U.S. In­sti­tute for Peace (USIP).

Sup­port­ers and crit­ics of Pres­i­dent Trump’s plan for Afghanistan, known as the South Asia strat­egy, credit White House ef­forts for bring­ing the Tal­iban closer to a peace deal than any pre­vi­ous U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion.

De­spite such progress, chal­lenges to a last­ing peace in Afghanistan re­main. Mr. Khalilzad said Fri­day that Amer­i­cans were able to lock in “guar­an­tees and en­force­ment mech­a­nisms” from Tal­iban lead­ers to en­sure Afghanistan would never be­come a safe haven for in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist groups like al Qaeda or the Is­lamic State.

But aside from that con­ces­sion, other po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues for a post­war Afghanistan re­main un­ad­dressed.

Ques­tions over how the Tal­iban will be able to en­mesh it­self into the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, how amenable the coun­try’s dis­parate po­lit­i­cal groups will be to a U.S.-bro­kered peace deal and what fu­ture role Amer­i­can forces will play in the coun­try con­tinue to be­lea­guer the peace process, an­a­lysts say.

“There is so far no agree­ment on talks among the Afghan will about an in­clu­sive po­lit­i­cal sys­tem or a cease-fire … while [those] talks are go­ing on,” said Scott Wor­den, di­rec­tor of Cen­tral Asia projects at USIP.

“Be­yond a [just] po­lit­i­cal agree­ment, fu­ture peace talks will need to ad­dress a range of thorny is­sues on cease-fires, pris­oner re­leases, and hu­man and women’s rights pro­tec­tions as well as how to en­force the terms of an agree­ment,” Mr. Wor­den said in a re­cent anal­y­sis of the Afghan peace process.

Mr. Trump’s pledge to pull 7,000 Amer­i­can troops — or half of all U.S. forces in the coun­try — from Afghanistan is pos­ing prob­lems for the peace talks.

The of­fer of a troop with­drawal “demon­strated that U.S. was se­ri­ous about of­fers to re­move troops in ex­change for coun­tert­er­ror­ism se­cu­rity guar­an­tees,” Mr. Wor­den said. “On the other hand, with­drawal ru­mors [cre­ate] a per­cep­tion in the re­gion that the U.S. may be will­ing to with­draw even with­out a peace deal, [re­duc­ing] the value of that bar­gain­ing chip.”

The key to re­solv­ing those un­der­ly­ing is­sues, specif­i­cally con­cern­ing in­terAfghan talks and a pos­si­ble cease-fire, will be a ma­jor fo­cus in the days and weeks be­fore the June dead­line, Mr. Khalilzad said.

“The is­sue of in­ter-Afghan di­a­logue and a cease-fire must hap­pen ASAP … why should the killing go on,” he said.

“Many is­sues of con­cern to the Afghans, but also to the rest of the world, can only be dealt with in an in­ter-Afghan di­a­logue,” he added, re­fer­ring to women’s rights and hu­man rights in a post­war Afghanistan.

Get­ting the Tal­iban to the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble by blud­geon­ing them on the bat­tle­field through a in­ten­si­fied U.S. air cam­paign has been a key pil­lar of Mr. Trump’s strat­egy. But Tal­iban ne­go­tia­tors have been un­will­ing to agree to a cease­fire, since a end to fight­ing would take away one of the group’s main bar­gain­ing chips, Mr. Khalilzad said.

Con­tin­u­ing their ter­ror­ist at­tacks is still “one of the only in­stru­ments they have to get con­ces­sions from the other side,” he said.

Kabul’s ten­u­ous hold on the coun­try and its in­abil­ity to con­tain the Tal­iban’s mo­men­tum con­tin­ues to un­der­mine the cen­tral govern­ment’s claims as the le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal power in the coun­try, other re­gional an­a­lysts note.

Only 63 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Afghanistan’s 34 prov­inces re­mains un­der the sway of the cen­tral govern­ment in Kabul, with the rest un­der the in­flu­ence or di­rect con­trol of the Tal­iban, ac­cord­ing to re­cent U.S. govern­ment as­sess­ments.

Tal­iban ne­go­tia­tors con­tinue to refuse to meet with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Afghan govern­ment dur­ing the talks, only hold­ing di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions with Mr. Khalilzad and the U.S. del­e­ga­tion.

For their part, Tal­iban lead­ers say they do not want to hold di­rect talks with Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s govern­ment, say­ing such talks would give the cur­rent pres­i­dent a po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage in the com­ing July elec­tions. So far, 18 can­di­dates in­clud­ing Mr. Ghani have for­mally an­nounced plans to vie for the pres­i­dency in July.

“There are in­di­ca­tions they would be will­ing to sit down with the [Afghan] govern­ment in a multi-party ar­range­ment,” Mr. Khalilzad said, de­clin­ing to say how soon peace talks with the cen­tral govern­ment could hap­pen.

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