Afghanistan’s stalemate: ‘talking and fighting’

Gray bearded and devout, Mohammad Waqif was the breadwinner. His salary working for the relief agency CARE fed and educated his entire family for 22 years.

And he was the driver. His devotion to his job took him on every road in Afghanistan, where he survived 20 lives’ worth of close calls, his family says.

Yet finally he was the victim, for whom peace in Afghanistan did not come soon enough.

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Mr. Waqif was killed by a Taliban suicide car bomb May 8 in Kabul, even as the latest round of U.S.-led peace talks with the Islamist insurgents in Doha, Qatar – which once gave a flash of hope that America’s longest war might soon end – began to flail.

The Taliban attack was carried out amid a broader spring offensive – and an Afghan government and U.S. military counteroffensive – in which all sides are escalating violence even as they talk about peace. How long that dual dynamic can hold without demonstrable progress toward ending the war is not clear.

“When I saw this, I could not control my tears,” says Mr. Waqif’s brother, Abdul Batin Ghafoori, as he describes the blast scene of a dozen burnt cars and collecting the remains of his brother – one of at least nine Afghans killed in the attack in the first days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Taliban target was the heavily fortified office of Counterpart International, an American firm that implements U.S. government-funded civil society programs. The Taliban accused it of “oppression, terror, anti-Islamic ideology” and of promoting Western culture, which it said included men and women intermingling.

But across the street was CARE, which lost three staff members and has been doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan since 1961.

‘WAR SHOULD END’

Choking up at the memory of his brother, Mr. Ghafoori voices the victim’s lament, common here after 40 years of almost continuous conflict: “We can’t say anything; we can’t do anything,” he says.

“The war should end. Peace should come at whatever price,” says Mr. Ghafoori. As his brother’s name is added to the seemingly endless list of Afghanistan’s war dead, he notes the irony that, whether war lasts 20 years or 40, “in the end you will sit and talk, make a solution, and make peace.”

Yet every aspect of that peace remains elusive, and the sixth round of talks between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and the Taliban appeared to end prematurely after the Taliban claimed the Kabul attack.

 

Talks were “getting into the ‘nitty gritty.’ The devil is always in the details,” Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted May 9, announcing the end of the round on the day after the Taliban attack.

“The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die,” said Mr. Khalilzad. “We need more and faster progress.”

Western officials here say four days were spent discussing what title the Taliban would assume under any deal. And the Taliban refuse to speak to the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they describe as a U.S. “puppet,” or to consider a cease-fire.

President Donald Trump has stated his desire to quickly end America’s more than 17-year military role in the Afghan war, and bring home the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops. Months ago, the United States announced it had agreed on a “framework” with the Taliban: withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for the Taliban preventing jihadists operating on Afghan soil.

The Pentagon reportedly floated a plan in January that would have seen half the U.S. troops depart within months, more than rolling back a surge of 3,900 troops that Mr. Trump authorized in mid-2017. The plan called for a full withdrawal within three to five years.

Yet the Taliban attack May 8 showed that “spoilers” abound, says Masood Karokhail, head of The Liaison Office (TLO), a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding efforts.

“The attack on Counterpart, while parallel to the ongoing talks, was not a good sign [and shows] that peace is not as close as we think,” says Mr. Karokhail. “Also for the U.S. – which wanted very fast results – it’s not going to be as fast as they want.”

Mr. Khalilzad shifted the Afghan war narrative from “stalemate” to “peace talks,” he says. But a peace deal may not end the fighting, with hazards including fractures within the Taliban and an estimated two dozen other armed groups in Afghanistan.

‘TALKING AND FIGHTING’

The Taliban have been fielding a high-level delegation in Qatar, headed by the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

“So a peace deal in Qatar may reduce violence in Afghanistan for a while,” adds Mr. Karokhail. “But the question is, how do we sustain that so it doesn’t jump back because of unemployment, because of ungoverned spaces, because of elements unhappy with the peace deal who feel they’ve been betrayed?”

Both sides have been preparing and engaging in military escalation for months.

“Like the Americans, they [the Taliban] are talking and fighting,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “The Americans seem to think they can only fight and talk, and that the Taliban are supposed to sit home and wait for things to happen.”

U.S. troops have been stepping up their house and night raids, and targeting Taliban commanders and fighters, says the official. Yet the Taliban have been measured in their response. They did not target the loya jirga for 3,200 people convened by Mr. Ghani in early May to discuss peace options, which called for an “immediate and permanent cease-fire” to start during Ramadan, and a gradual withdrawal of foreign troops.

Rejecting the loya jirga’s call for a cease-fire, the Taliban said that waging holy war during the month of Ramadan had “even more [holy] rewards.”   

Still, the attack on Counterpart was more “for show,” with a big explosion but limited casualties, says the Western official. “They did not go for the big civilian casualty count,” says the official. “They didn’t go from room to room shooting people in the head [as] we’ve seen before.”

“At the same time, the government needs to be under pressure, too, because Ghani’s been known to drag out any progress on peace,” says the official. “So the Taliban are saying, ‘Hello, we are still here.’”

One result is that the Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength, as if they are a government-in-waiting.

“The Taliban have a very consistent narrative: ‘We are stronger than the government,’” says a senior Afghan government official who asked not to be further identified. “They have a lot of rational arguments behind it … because they are out in the field, they have been killing Americans, and [killing] hundreds of Afghan National Army, and they have access to more area than before.”

Yet on the side of the government, which has been marred by widespread corruption, and by Mr. Ghani’s own admission that 45,000 Afghan security force members have lost their lives since his tenure began in 2014, there is little to engender hope or exemplify strength.

“Right now we have nothing, actually,” says the senior official. “Do we have political stability? No. Do we have security? No. Do we have investments coming? No. Do we have zero civilian casualties? No, we have tons.”

COMMITMENT TO PEACE?

Yet even if the Taliban exude strength at the negotiating table, some Afghans question the Taliban readiness for peace.

They also question the Taliban’s claim to have evolved, in which they say they now embrace women’s education and inclusive politics, in stark contrast to how they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF today, for example, reported that attacks on schools rose to 192 in 2018, nearly a threefold increase over 2017. 

“I hear people say the Taliban have changed,” says Abubakar Gharzai, who works in broadcasting in Kabul. “What did you see to make that assumption? It’s like those rumors that spread in the Middle Ages, that a woman is a witch.”

“I can’t believe people … believe what the Taliban are saying with their mouth, while they are blowing people into pieces,” says Mr. Gharzai.

Simultaneously talking peace and fighting to maximize leverage is understandable, but also a source of anxiety when so little is known about the state of the peace talks – or even their aim, says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

“What is the final outcome? The concern is that so far we have nothing; we have literally nothing,” says Ms. Nemat. “We are getting closer to what? To peace? No. To withdrawal of the troops, which is their [Taliban] demand? No, we don’t see any sign of that, either.”

“The whole vagueness of the situation is playing into the hands of forces – here I would generalize it – who have an interest to keep up the war,” says Ms. Nemat. “Because otherwise why, in the midst of making progress, according to themselves, why suddenly is this blow happening? [Why the] escalation of attacks against the Taliban, and escalation of Taliban reaction?

“No side is de-escalating,” she says. “Both sides are at high speed.”

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