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U.S. push for peace in Afghanistan has new 'urgency.' Some Afghans fear it could backfire.


DOHA, Qatar - The United States has launched its most aggressive push yet for a political settlement to end two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, but some Afghan officials are warning the campaign could backfire: deadlocking talks, undermining theelectedgovernment and plunging the country deeper into violence.

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The approach - nicknamed "moonshot" by some U.S. officials referring to its lofty ambitions - is an attempt to reach a peace deal within weeks by applying unprecedented pressure to negotiating teams on both sides of the conflict, the Taliban and the Kabul government.

After the two sides met in Qatar's capital, Doha, to begin historic peace talks last year, little progress has been made at the negotiating table. Meetings stalled for months while Afghanistan violence began to soar with the Taliban expanding its territorial influence and control.

The Trump administration's focus was on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The Biden team is applying greater pressure on the diplomatic front. U.S.-Afghanistan policy is under review, and the U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, embarked on a regional tour last month to spearhead the new approach.

But Afghan officials fear the tight timeline and the threat of withdrawing all U.S. troops without a political settlement risks repeating the mistakes of the 1990s, when Afghanistan descended into civil war on the heels of the Soviet withdrawal. The sweeping battles for power helped giverise to the Taliban movement, which was driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Afghan officials, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with journalists. The Afghan officials acknowledged that current levels of violence and the political stalemate in Doha are unacceptable, but disagreed with the Biden administration's attempted reset.

"The consequences for us are the collapse of the state, sudden destruction and a very long and intense civil war," said one Afghan official with knowledge of the talks, referring to the increased U.S. pressure.

"The fact that it has happened in the past once shows it could happen again," he said.

A second official said "pushing the peace now with this new initiative very rapidly" risks undermining the country's military. He said he fears "bringing back the old mujahideen at the expense of the Afghan security forces," referring to the militia factions and irregular fighters who fought the Soviet forces, then turned on each other during the civil war.

The accelerated push is occurring amid growing indications that the United States is considering postponing the withdrawal of U.S. troops - a move aimed at pressuring the Taliban to reduce violence and comply with the terms of the deal it signed with the United States last year. But Biden administration officials have also said a final decision of the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has not yet been made.

During a regional tour involving meetings in Kabul; Doha; and Islamabad, Pakistan, Khalilzad delivered a draft peace plan to the Afghan government and Taliban leadership. Along with the draft proposal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani received a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressing him to accelerate peace talks and reach an agreement with the militants.

"The United States has not ruled out any option," the letter warned. "I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone."

A spokesman for Ghani's office rejected the suggestion that the president is under greater pressure now from Washington to reach a peace deal. " If there is any pressure that we feel, it is the pressure from the Afghan people who have been terrorized" since the Soviet pullout in 1979, said Fatima Murchal, Ghani's deputy spokesperson.

Taliban representatives in Doha also dismissed that the change in approach would have an effect on long-stalled talks.

"Pressure from the United States never works," said Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban's political office. "We know this because they have already tried all forms of pressure for 20 years."

Naeem said the group does not expect the United States to walk away from the 2020 deal, but if it does, "there will be problems, and they will be responsible for that."

U.S. officials say the potential risks of inaction outweigh an opportunity to accelerate the process.

The new approach of "moving at a faster pace toward a political agreement," said one U.S. official, is "the best option for moving forward."

"Given where we are, the alternative is more dangerous," he said.

But for many officials in Kabul, the letter and the draft peace proposal - first made public by Afghanistan's ToloNews network - came as a shock.

"It's not what we have been promised," said the Afghan official with knowledge of the talks, who described the tone of the leaked letter as "upsetting" and contrary to the more consultative approach Kabul was expecting from the Biden administration.

The Afghan government had called on the Biden administration to conduct a "full review" of the peace process and to apply more pressure on the Taliban before committing to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"They were hoping for a miracle," said Fatima Gailani, referring to the members of Ghani's government. Gailani, one of the lead negotiators, said Afghan leaders should not have been surprised by the U.S. pressure campaign, given President Biden's past comments on his desire to end the war in Afghanistan.

Now, she said, the leaked document "brought reality out into the open" and could act as a wake-up call to unify Afghanistan's political parties.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, also supports the new approach from the United States, but warned that some of the specifics outlined in the U.S. draft peace deal - such as detailing the structure of the interim government - were a potential "distraction" that "could make matters more complicated."

Reaction in Kabul already appears to be exposing widening political fault lines, rather than signaling moves toward consensus. Ghani's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, welcomed the new U.S. proposal.

"It is a positive starting point to boost the peace process and the peace talks," said Abdullah spokesperson Mujib Rahman Rahimi. Abdullah and other political rivals of Ghani's administration have the most to gain from the establishment of an interim government, one of the draft's key elements.

"We do not consider the proposal a setback or a step to destabilize the country. Rather, it is a step forward," Rahimi said.

Afghanistan is in one of the deadliest conflicts in the world. Last year, violence killed more than 3,000 civilians and wounded nearly 5,800, according to a United Nations annual report. Those numbers represented a drop in overall civilian casualties compared with the year prior, but U.N. data showed that, as the year wore on, deaths began reaching record levels.

"Ask anyone, and they will tell you a story about losing a son or a husband or a father," said Ihsanullah Sediq, a peace activist in Ghazni province, one of the country's most volatile. Sediq, also a member of a conservative, religious Afghan political party, said "from a humanitarian view, it's not acceptable for this war to continue."

"The only way to find an end to this war is to create a new political environment, whatever you want to call it," he said. "And it must come with international pressure. Because without it, the leaders in Kabul will not tolerate each other for even just a single week."

Published : March 14, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Susannah George