World Exclusive: In secret talks with the Taliban, Trump dumps the Afghan government

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World Exclusive: In secret talks with the Taliban, Trump dumps the Afghan government


Taliban leaders speak out for the first time to TheArticle

By Lynne O’Donnell in London and Mirwais Khan in Quetta

Leaders of the Taliban who are participating in talks with the United States aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan said they are close to signing an agreement that they believe will lead to the withdrawal of American troops and their return to government less than 20 years after their brutal regime was forced from power by a U.S. bombing campaign.

Senior leaders of the insurgent group have spoken for the first time since discussions began last year when U.S. President Donald Trump tasked a special envoy with brokering peace so American troops can return home before he faces re-election in 2020.

They said their pivotal demand – that U.S. forces leave Afghanistan – had already been agreed. The most senior of three Taliban officials interviewed for this story said no timeframe for the withdrawal had yet been decided.

“The Americans asked for two years,” he said, timing which would accord with the U.S. political calendar as the talks with Trump’s envoy began in September. “We said six months.”

“Now let’s see what timeframe we decide on, but up until now it has not been confirmed,” he said.

Financial and political support from countries in the region would enable the insurgents to play a key role in governing the country, another of the Taliban’s senior leaders said.

The leaders said they would not talk with Afghanistan’s elected government, which they regard as a U.S. “puppet,” until all terms were agreed with Washington. The role of the current government after the U.S. troop withdrawal was still being discussed, they said.

Without wishing to be named, two senior Taliban figures spoke at their headquarters in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where they have been allowed by Pakistan’s military to live and operate since 2001; another spoke from Qatar, where the group has an office.

The Taliban figures quoted here represent the movement’s most senior leadership. They spoke in detail about discussions with the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as points they said have already been agreed, and their determination that President Ashraf Ghani’s government continue to be marginalised.

“These talks are very important, for the first time we can say we are close to signing a peace agreement with America,” said one of the Taliban leaders, speaking in Quetta.

 “Both parties each have one major point: from our side that America should leave Afghanistan; and from the American side that Afghan territory should not be used by any terrorist group for attacks. Both sides have accepted both these points,” he said.

The Taliban official in Qatar, who is directly involved in the negotiations, recounted details still to be worked out: “How much time should the Americans be given to withdraw troops from Afghanistan; when should a ceasefire be announced; what cabinet positions should the Taliban take in the current government.”

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years, until 2001 when a U.S.-led coalition ended their regime, which was based on an extreme interpretation of Islam and marked by cruelty and incompetence. The norms of modern life were absent: women were forced out of education and jobs; music, dancing and other pastimes were banned; harsh justice was marked by hand amputations and public executions.

The invasion that drove them from power followed the 9/11 attacks, committed by Al Qaeda while its leader, Osama bin Laden, was sheltered by the Taliban. He was killed in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011 by a U.S. Navy Seal team without Islamabad’s knowledge.

Following an apparently inconclusive series of informal talks in 2015 and 2016, the two sides – the Kabul government and the Taliban – agreed last year to a three-day ceasefire to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid in June.

A Western official close to both sides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ceasefire, the first since 2001, was proposed in a letter to Ghani by the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhanzada. That move is seen as having opened the path to the current process.

This round began with a secret visit by Khalilzad, an ambitious former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and long-term associate of Ghani, to Qatar in September. Until then, Washington had refused to meet with the Taliban, favouring an “Afghan-led” peace process.

Little substance has been made public, fuelling concerns that the insurgents may be offered concessions that will undermine progress in crucial areas, including rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights and women’s equality. The Taliban do not recognise the Afghan constitution.

The delegitimization of Ghani’s administration has angered many Afghans, millions of whom have voted in elections since 2001. In contrast, the talks have given the Taliban a global media platform that has lent them political legitimacy, even as they make insubstantial statements about women’s rights and power sharing.

“The Taliban is not a political movement, no matter what platform they are given, it is a violent movement. They only have violence, you cannot politicise them, if you think they will abandon violence you are mistaken,” said an Afghan security official, speaking confidentially.

“What is important for us is not to be fooled by these peace agreements that Zal has come up with,” he said, referring to Khalilzad by his nickname. “Nobody should trust nobody, and of course not Zal.”

The U.S. government-appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has said about half the country is controlled or contested by the Taliban. Nevertheless, the insurgents have been incapable or unwilling to hold ground, seeming only to show willing to fight – and to kill.

The U.N. says last year’s civilian casualty figures were the highest on record — 3,804, including 927 children, attributed largely to intensified air attacks by government forces and increased suicide attacks by the insurgency.  Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and security forces have been killed since 2001.

“The enemy is trying to improve their leverage at the bargaining table by conducting high-profile attacks that inflict casualties but that don’t fundamentally change the situation on the ground,” retired U.S. Army General John Nicholson, who until September was commander of the NATO mission, said in a recent podcast.

The U.S. has 14,000 troops serving in Afghanistan in NATO’s non-combat training mission, and a separate anti-terrorism combat mission. Trump has said he wants to withdraw half that number in the short term.

Khalilzad has shuttled across the region with little accountability, the Afghan official said. His announcement after a meeting in Qatar last month of a draft “framework” agreement with the Taliban was “outside his authority,” he said.

The most senior of the insurgents in Quetta said he is confident the Taliban will return to power with guarantees of “financial backing of many countries ready to help us, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates”.

The Taliban likely covet the defence and interior ministries, though some analysts have warned against a stealthy takeover of the security apparatus.

The insurgent leaders said they had sought pledges from the U.S. and the U.N. that they will not intervene should violence erupt after the American troop withdrawal.

The Taliban came to power on the back of a vicious civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 after a decade-long war. A repeat scenario would be little surprise in such a fractured political landscape, where warlords and local powerbrokers have benefited from the huge financial largesse of international aid and criminality enabled by the war.

Billions of dollars have been spent on developing infrastructure, education, health, civil society, media, justice and other trappings of a modern state where none existed under the Taliban. At the same time, the insurgents have become the world’s principle traffickers of heroin, earnings billions to fund their war against the Kabul government.

The senior Quetta figure said the U.S. envoy had agreed to remove the names of Taliban talks participants from international travel and finance blacklists, and to release some Taliban prisoners, though he did not specify who or where they are being held.

At Khalilzad’s most recent trip to Qatar last week, for talks still underway, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban founder, replaced Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai as political chief, with decision-making authority, the Quetta leaders said.

Asked if the Taliban would fight for power, the senior leader said: “It is the right of the Afghan people to choose who they want in power.” Taking part in elections was “one of the options,” he said. “We want the people to decide, but if someone uses force to take power, we will do the same.”

Khalilzad has said he aims to bring the Taliban into more comprehensive talks that include the government and lead to a ceasefire, and, ultimately, to peace. In the meantime, the security official said, Ghani is concentrating on his bid for re-election in a vote scheduled for July.

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