afghan peace talks
March 23, 2020

The novel coronavirus pandemic hasn't stopped the Taliban and the Afghan government from trying to launch negotiations with the goal of securing a peace deal in Afghanistan. And they have Skype to thank for that, The New York Times reports.

Before official talks start, the two sides are trying settle a dispute over prisoner exchanges. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has rejected terms agreed upon by the Taliban and the U.S. in prior talks that called for the release of 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 Afghan government prisoners as a prerequisite for negotiations. That prompted some reshuffling, and the U.S. now supports a phased release of prisoners conditioned upon the Taliban stopping their attacks, which the Taliban believes violates the original terms. And the virus, of course, only adds an extra challenge to the already complex peace effort.

Over the weekend, representatives gathered from five separate locations for a video conference via Skype as part of an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus to get the prisoner negotiations going. There's likely a lot more work to be done, but reports are that there were common points of emphasis.

One thing that was also reportedly very clear is that things need to get done swiftly now more than ever. "Everyone understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent," said U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

March 4, 2020

The Pentagon said early Wednesday that U.S. forces conducted "defensive" strikes against Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan, the first U.S. attack against the Taliban in 11 days. The U.S. and Taliban leaders signed a peace agreement on Saturday, but the Taliban then launched an offensive against Afghan troops in southern Helmand province, including 43 attacks on Tuesday, U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said. He called on the Taliban to stop the attack and uphold its commitments from the peace agreement.

The Taliban said Tuesday, and President Trump then confirmed, that the U.S. president and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar had spoken on the phone Tuesday.

Trump said he and the Taliban leader had a "a very good talk," he believes the Taliban wants "to cease the violence" in Afghanistan, and "the relationship is very good that I have with the mullah." Peter Weber

March 2, 2020

The United States and the Taliban agreed to a peace deal Saturday that would eventually lead to a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region. The pact was always going to be tricky to pull off, but it's already facing hurdles just a couple of days after the signing, Politico reports.

The biggest struggle now is getting the Taliban and the Afghan government to iron out their own peace deal, which, ultimately, is the only thing that can bring full peace to the country, which has been mired in conflict for decades, well before the United States showed up in 2001. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday refused to commit to releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a prerequisite for negotiations, and the Taliban fired back Monday, saying they wouldn't sit down with the government until the prisoners were released.

Monday also saw the end of a reduction in violence pact that set the table for the U.S. agreement; fighting has reportedly resumed between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. Subsequently, Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, said Monday he expects the U.S. to stand by its commitment to aid the government should the Taliban violate its side of the agreement. "If Taliban want peace they should stop killing Afghans," Rahmani said. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

February 28, 2020

After nearly 20 years of war, "we are tired, and the Taliban is tired," Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammed Ahmadzai, the top Afghan army commander in Helmand province, told The Washington Post. "This war is just destroying everything." Friday is the final day of a week-long "reduction in violence" between the Taliban and U.S-backed Afghan forces designed to build trust before the U.S. and Taliban likely sign a peace deal Saturday.

There were no "significant" breach of the violence-reduction pact as of Thursday, Ahmadzai said. But at one of the government army bases in Helmand, 2nd Lt. Aghagul Afghan said he doesn't really "know what this term 'reduction in violence' means," telling the Post: "We didn't receive very detailed orders, just a call on the radio. My commander told me we are not allowed to attack the Taliban, otherwise we will be prosecuted. All they told me is, 'Don't make problems for us.'"

The details of the peace plan aren't publicly available. President Trump said the 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would but cut to 8,600, and the Taliban, which would vow not to host extremists planning to attack the U.S., tells The Associated Press all U.S. forces could be out of the country in 14 months. If the U.S. and Taliban sign the agreement, representatives from the Taliban and Afghan government are supposed to sit down within 15 days and try to negotiate the contours of Afghanistan's future. That's not a sure thing, as the Post's Susannah George explains.

"Many Afghans view Saturday's expected signing of a U.S.-Taliban peace deal with a heavy dose of well-earned skepticism," AP reports. "They’ve spent decades living in a country at war — some their whole lives." But the week of reduced violence is important in itself, says Andrew Watkins at the International Crisis Group. "If these Afghans can live through a week's respite of fighting, that might begin to change wider perceptions of whether or not a lasting peace is possible." Peter Weber

February 22, 2020

The United States and the Taliban are inching closer to a peace settlement, but it won't be easy, The Associated Press reports.

A reduction in violence agreement between the two sides went into effect early Saturday in Afghanistan, and the U.S. has halted offensive operations. If it's successful, the week-long truce will be followed by a peace accord, scheduled to be signed Feb. 29, wrapping up the 18-year conflict and paving the way for American troops to gradually head home. If that deal is signed, the Afghan government plans to launch its own negotiations with the Taliban.

But U.S. military officials do not anticipate a smooth process. It will reportedly be challenging to determine if any attacks — which are anticipated to be carried out by so-called "spoilers" who are opposed to peace talks from happening at all — in the next week will breach the truce because of the decentralized nature of the Taliban's operations. "There are going to be a lot of opportunities for any militia commander, element of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other local forces who don't want to seal a deal, to conduct violence," said Seth Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Officials said Washington, Kabul, and the Taliban will maintain a channel to discuss any issues, such as allowing the Taliban to deny responsibility for an attack. Still, the "case-by-case" assessment will likely be difficult, and nobody is precisely sure how the U.S. will measure success. Read more at The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

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