Peace Deal Nears as US-Taliban Talks Resume

Ninth round of negotiations begin in Doha amid lingering concerns over ISIS and Al-Qa'ida threats

Afghan security forces keep watch at a check point close to the compound of Afghanistan's national intelligence agency in Kabul, Afghanistan. (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI)
Afghan security forces keep watch at a check point close to the compound of Afghanistan's national intelligence agency in Kabul, Afghanistan.
(photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI)
 [Islamabad] US President Donald Trump hailed progress in negotiations on an Afghanistan peace deal and said talks with both the Taliban and the Afghan government are going well.
US officials resumed talks with the Taliban on Thursday in a ninth round of peace talks in Qatar’s capital city of Doha, and are said to be close to reaching an agreement.
According to the expected deal between the US and Taliban, the US would start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban would guarantee that it would not allow Al-Qaida and other militant groups to use Afghan soil for plotting terror attacks anywhere in the world. 
During a conversation with reporters last Sunday, Trump said the US does not want Afghanistan to become a laboratory for terrorists.
“It can’t be a laboratory for terror. And we have stopped that, and we have a very, very good view. I mean, some things are going to be announced over the next couple of weeks as to what happened. We will decide whether or not we'll be staying longer or not,” President Trump added.
In another exchange with reporters on August 21 he emphasized that the US will “always have intelligence” in Afghanistan, having termed the country “the Harvard University of terrorism” a day earlier.
“We’ll always have somebody there,” he said, reiterating his July vow for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan who was held at the US Guantanamo Bay detention camp for four years, also confirmed that the peace agreement between the Taliban and the US will be finalized within the next few days. 
Talking to the media from an undisclosed location, Zaeef said Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will sign the peace agreement, while Pakistan, China, and Russia will serve as the guarantors of the agreement from the Taliban side. 
“The future of Afghanistan will be discussed in the intra-Afghan negotiations,” Zaeef said.
However, the Taliban has so far refused to speak with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Kabul government, saying any engagement with it would mean recognition of the legitimacy of what they refer to as the puppet government. 
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., told The Media Line that both President Trump and the American public are ready for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the US has been embroiled in a military battle for 18 years.
The question, he said, is whether US officials and particularly those who have Trump's ear, are prepared to sign off on a withdrawal. 
“While I would argue there's a fairly strong consensus in Washington in favor of a peace process to end the war, there is certainly some anxiety about the prospect of withdrawing—given the problematic implications this could have for the security situation in Afghanistan and beyond,” said Kugelman. 
Kugelman noted that while the removal of US troops would be a major psychological blow for the Afghanistan government and a massive public relations victory for the Taliban, the cutoff of US funds to the government could be even more devastating for Afghanistan. 
“If the US pulls the plug on its financial support for the Afghan security forces—and that support is very generous—then there's a good reason to fear that the Afghan military would fall apart,” he said.
Withdrawal of forces would embolden ISIS, which is currently the most powerful international terror group in Afghanistan, he added.
“ISIS has been able to develop a foothold and remain a threat in Afghanistan despite the US military presence and firepower. So I don't think we should overstate the impact of a US withdrawal on ISIS. This is a group that's managed to keep itself afloat even with US boots on the ground and US airstrikes in the sky,” he said.
Even with US troops in the country Afghanistan is deeply divided, he continued. The Taliban and ISIS are rivals and the two have fought each other on the battlefield, while the Afghan government is weak and has struggled to mount effective offensives against both groups. 
“This is why the US has been so essential, in that it has helped these Afghan efforts. Without US forces to assist, [the Afghan government’s] job will get a whole lot tougher,” said Kugelman. 
Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani has said that withdrawal of US-led forces will not impact the lives of Afghans, who, he said, need to live in peace. 
In an interview with the Afghan TV Channel TOLO on August 22, Ghani rejected rumors that if the US withdraws its troops, the country will collapse within six months.
“We have reformed the Afghan Security Forces and now they are capable of defending the country against any type of threat,” Ghani asserted.
Talking about a post-US withdrawal situation, Afghan Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Muhammad Hassan, a Soviet War veteran, told The Media Line that the current situation in the country is worse than it was during the Soviet Union withdrawal which was completed in February 1989, following its own near decade of war in Afghanistan.
He noted that former Afghan Soviet-war commanders and other warlords still retain positions of power, so no faction—including the Taliban—are capable of exerting full control over the country.
“We can assume that besides ISIS and Al-Qaeda threats, these groups are also lurking on the side waiting for a US troop withdrawal,” Hassan added, calling on international powers to learn from the past and not to abandon Afghanistan as they did after the USSR withdrawal. 
“This time the international community including the US must be careful. Otherwise, the world will face a blow of another deadliest generation of the ‘Holy Warriors,’ ” he said.
Bolstering Hassan’s concerns is an August 20 US Department of Defense report on US counter terrorism operations in Afghanistan which concluded that ISIS’ Afghan offshoot remains “a significant threat.”
“The terrorist group will remain an enduring threat in Afghanistan, even if the Afghan government and the Taliban reach a political settlement,” the report concluded. 
Meanwhile, as US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad headed to Doha for peace talks, two more US soldiers lost their lives last Wednesday in the Faryab area of Afghanistan. Fourteen US soldiers have been killed in 2019 during close battles with Taliban forces. In all, about 2,400 US servicemen have died since 2001 in the longest war in US history.