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US and Taliban push for ‘tangible results’ in fresh round of peace talks

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina | Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, Russia May 30, 2019

Peace negotiations between the US and Taliban are “critical” a spokesman for the militant group said Sunday during the second day of talks in Qatar, as the insurgents claimed responsibility for two attacks that left several Afghans dead.

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Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press that both sides are looking for “tangible results” as they try to hammer out the fine print of agreements that will see the eventual withdrawal of over 20,000 US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and end America's longest-running war.

 

The agreements are also expected to provide guarantees that Afghanistan will not again harbor terrorists planning international attacks.

The talks began on Saturday and are expected to continue into the next week.

Washington hopeful

The two sides sat down to negotiate just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was hopeful of a deal to end Afghanistan's protracted war by September 1.

"Getting a comprehensive peace agreement with the Taliban before September 1 would be nothing short of a miracle," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson's Center.

"That said, I could certainly envision a more limited deal being in place by September 1 on a US troop withdrawal, given that there's already been ample progress on this issue."

Pompeo and Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have both said the final accord will include not only agreements with the Taliban on troop withdrawal and guarantees of a non-threatening Afghanistan, but also agreements on intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent cease fire.

Setback to peace

But a lasting peace may already have suffered a setback following two separate attacks on Saturday by Taliban fighters.

At least eight election commission staff were killed in an attack in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where the jihadist group set off car bombs, Independent Election Commission (IEC) spokesman Zabiullah Sadaat told AFP. A Kandahar police spokesman, said security forces were also killed in the attack, and that district’s communications had been cut off.

The Taliban also claimed responsibility for Saturday’s killing of at least 25 pro-government militiamen in an attack in northern Afghanistan.

Tension with Taliban and Afghan government

Until now the Taliban have refused direct talks with the Afghan government while holding two separate meetings with a wide array of prominent Afghans from Kabul, including former president Hamid Karzai, members of the former northern alliance that fought the Taliban during its five-year rule as well as members of the government.

The Taliban have said they will meet government officials but as ordinary Afghans, labelling President Ashraf Ghani's government a US puppet and noting that the Washington is the final arbiter on the key issue: troop withdrawal.

The Taliban have refused to commit to a ceasefire until the withdrawal is complete, saying that to restart their insurgency if the US reneges on its promises could be difficult.

Upcoming elections

But the accelerated pace of negotiations and the sudden announcement of a September 1 target date for an agreement could be linked to Afghan President Ghani's insistence on presidential polls scheduled for September 28 in Afghanistan, say analysts.

The upcoming elections have been criticised by many of his political opponents who often point to last October's parliamentary polls. The voting was so badly mismanaged that Ghani fired the entire Independent Election Commission, and several of the parliamentary seats are still being contested.

A biometric identification system aimed at reducing election fraud was prematurely rolled out, with the few people trained on the machines not even showing up on election day.

While there were incidences of election violence, analysts widely agreed the greatest flaw was the widespread mismanagement and fraud.

Elections could hamper peace?

Khalilzad has also suggested that presidential elections could hamper reaching a peace agreement.

"I do think the US government recognises that the election could pose a major obstacle to peace talks, given that it will be a distraction and given that it will accentuate and intensify the fractures and rivalries in the Afghan political environment that undercut reconciliation prospects," said regional expert Kugelman.

"Another reason for the focus on September 1 is much simpler: President Trump wants out, and he wants a deal as soon as possible."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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