Trump administration leaves Afghanistan in dark with direct Taliban talks

KABUL: The Trump administration’s direct talks with the Taliban have left the U.S.-backed government in Kabul in the dark, raising concern that any peace deal will lack the public support to work, Afghanistan’s top emissary to Washington warned this week.

The pointed comments from Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani were the latest sign of deepening distrust between allies. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has stepped up unprecedented direct talks with the militant Taliban amid reports that President Trump is eager to withdraw U.S. forces from what is already the longest war in the country’s history.

Ms. Rahmani told a small group of reporters this week about fears that the emerging U.S. plan will only embolden the Taliban on the battlefield, increasing pressure on the beleaguered government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The [Afghan] government does not feel they have been briefed enough” on the Khalilzad talks, the Afghan envoy said. “If a peace [deal] is to be negotiated and is to be durable, it cannot keep going on without the presence of the Afghan people.

“For the Taliban to discuss [peace] on behalf of 35 million Afghans, on what basis are they going to that?” she asked. “They are not our government, they are not our representatives.”

She made the comments weeks after hundreds of Afghan parliamentarians, senators, and provincial and district leaders met in Kabul for the Loya Jirga council of elders to discuss the way ahead for inclusive peace talks. Ending the war in Afghanistan “should be decided by the people who are most affected by this process,” the ambassador said.

Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen who has held a series of negotiating sessions with senior Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, has stated publicly that direct discussion between the Taliban and the central government is a prerequisite to any final deal.

But the Taliban have rejected any such talks with the Afghan government — including issues on the future of the roughly 17,000 U.S. troops in the country — until after the country’s presidential elections, slated for July but now delayed until September, Mr. Khalilzad said in a speech in Washington this year. After six rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, Kabul remains no closer to gaining a seat at the negotiation table.

The Taliban have repeatedly dismissed the legitimacy of the Afghan government and Mr. Ghani, saying Kabul is a puppet regime of the U.S. and its Western allies. The militants who were in power at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 still adhere to the political view of modern society governed under strict Islamic law.

That kind of mindset will not lead to a lasting peace in Afghanistan, Ms. Rahmani said.

Further inflaming tensions between Washington and Kabul are Trump administration moves that apparently give legitimacy to the Taliban as a negotiating partner. The administration decided to stop tracking how much of Afghanistan is under the sway of the insurgents and has asked Congress to reimburse travel costs for the Taliban negotiating team.

The funds, included in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, would pay for transportation, lodging and food expenses, as well as various supplies, congressional leaders told Roll Call on Thursday.

Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, the Indiana Democrat who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee that denied the request, said such payouts would provide material support to a terrorist group, according to Roll Call.

The Pentagon’s decision to stop tracking the amount of territory in Afghanistan under Taliban control is widely seen as an implicit effort to hand the Taliban an element of political legitimacy, analysts say. By not tracking the amount of territory held by the insurgent group versus the central government, the Taliban are seen less as a battlefield enemy and more of a political entity holding sway in specific areas of Afghanistan, critics say.

Ms. Rahmani said sidelining the elected government in Kabul will undercut any hopes of a final deal.

The talks, she said, “cannot keep going on without the backing of the Afghan people.”

Supporters and critics of the Trump plan for Afghanistan, known as the South Asia strategy, credit the administration’s efforts for bringing the Taliban closer to a tangible peace plan than any previous U.S. administration. Getting the Afghan terrorist group to the negotiating table, in part through an intensified American air campaign, has been a key pillar of Mr. Trump’s strategy since the plan was announced in August 2017.

Despite the multiple rounds of peace talks, Taliban negotiators have been unwilling to agree to a cease-fire, and deadly attacks on government forces continue to be carried out with grim regularity.

The Taliban claimed credit for a pair of attacks on Afghan security forces in the country’s south on Thursday that left 10 Afghan troops dead and four wounded. Weeks earlier, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Kabul headquarters of an international aid agency that killed five and wounded 20.

“They clearly choose violence as a means of leverage,” said Ms. Rahmani, arguing that the U.S. bilateral talks have only emboldened the Taliban’s brazenness. “It has contributed to their morale on the ground.”

Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib in March went so far as to accuse the U.S. of attempting to negotiate a “backdoor deal” with the Taliban as a way to abandon the war more quickly. The former Afghan ambassador accused Mr. Khalilzad of trying to undermine the Ghani government through the peace talks and secure a political foothold in the country for himself.

As a result of his comments, the Trump administration said it would no longer deal with Mr. Mohib and that the adviser would not be received by any top U.S. officials from the State or Defense departments during subsequent visits to Washington.

Despite such tensions, Ms. Rahmani insisted her government’s ties with the Trump administration and Capitol Hill remain steadfast. “We have a very good relationship with the White House, the State Department and the Congress,” she said.
Courtesy: (Washington Post)