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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Intra-Afghan talks at crossroads amid rising tensions

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Delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban took a break last December after reaching an agreement following months of negotiations in Qatar, but now questions are being asked about the future of the talks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called on US President Joe Biden’s administration to slowdown the withdrawal of its troops, accusing the Taliban of failing to commit to its obligations in the February agreement signed last year.

“The United States and NATO must take a very strong stand on the conditions-based approach,” Ghani said on Friday in an online address to the Aspen Security Forum.

The Afghan Government and the Taliban began actively engaging in the “historic” Intra-Afghan peace talks, which Qatar began hosting in September last year. Those negotiations were proceeded by the signing of a deal between the US and the Taliban, also mediated by Qatar, on February 29th 2020 which ensured the phased withdrawal of American troops and NATO forces within 14 months of the agreement.

The accord, signed while the Trump Administration was in office, led to the reduction of US troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, the lowest since 2001, with a predicted total withdrawal by May of 2021.

However, the Pentagon stated on Friday that the Biden Administration will not commit to a full withdrawal this year as the Taliban continued carrying out attacks in Kabul.

In what security analysts described as a possible response from the Taliban to the US’ refusal to commit to a full troop withdrawal, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on an Afghanistan military base in the east of the country on Saturday, which killed at least 12 of security personnel.

“Interestingly, [the attacks] are not occurring in any of the areas that are controlled by the Taliban, which makes them even more suspect” said Farhan Chak, Associate Professor of Political Science at Qatar University, told Doha News, commenting on previous attacks in Afghanistan.

In an apparent response to the attack,  the Afghan National Intelligence Agency said it had arrested on Sunday one of the Taliban’s most senior members in Kabul, Mohammad Alias Hajji Lala, but the group denied those claims, insisting Lala was still free.

Read also: Qatar condemns killing of Afghan women judges

Talks between the government and the Taliban were set to resume in Qatar in early January this year, but sources stated that Kabul has been stalling the resumption as they awaited the Biden’s inauguration.

“The reason for the pause was cynical and tactical on behalf of the Afghan government in order to delay what they considered a bad deal,” said Dr. Chak.

A diplomatic source also told Reuters that the sides did not want to commit to any negotiations prior the inauguration to ensure that the Biden administration is committed to former-US President Donald Trump’s commitment to pull out the troops. 

“Will the Biden administration commit to the withdrawal? Not likely, and certainly not in the manner that the Trump administration had agreed. There is a possibility that Biden might be pressured to add new conditions to the agreement, which the Taliban is unlikely to accept,” said Dr. Chak.

“It is understandable, from the Afghan government point of view, since once the US leaves, and the financial coffers dry up, then the likelihood of their hold on power substantially disappears,” he added.

On January 24th, the White House announced it will review the peace agreement reached with the Taliban last year.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib that Washington will review the agreement by assessing whether the Taliban has also fulfilled it from its part by reducing violence in the country and cutting ties with terrorist groups.

“Depending on how Biden’s presidency carries forward, he might even increase troops, momentarily.  Much depends on how the US will engage with China and Iran – both have a stake in Afghanistan,” said Chak.

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