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US seeks to salvage Afghan peace after attacks but leverage wanes

A nurse takes care of newborn babies rescued and brought to the Ataturk Children Hospital after their mothers were killed in an attack on a Kabul maternity hospital
A nurse takes care of newborn babies rescued and brought to the Ataturk Children Hospital after their mothers were killed in an attack on a Kabul maternity hospital Wakil KOHSAR AFP
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Washington (AFP)

The United States is struggling to salvage a peace process in Afghanistan after shocking attacks, with its leverage narrowing as it moves full speed ahead with plans to end its longest war.

A February 29 agreement between President Donald Trump's administration and the Taliban laid out a total troop pullout by mid-2021, nearly two decades after a US invasion ousted the Islamist guerrillas' hardline regime following the September 11 attacks.

But planned talks between the Taliban and Kabul government never began, and President Ashraf Ghani announced after this week's violence that he was resuming offensive operations against the insurgents.

In a stunning act of brutality, gunmen on Tuesday rampaged through a maternity ward in Kabul, killing 24 people including newborns who had yet to see the outside world.

The United States said it believes the attack in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood was carried out not by the Taliban but by the Islamic State group -- Sunni extremists who fomented bloody, sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

"I think US policy is tone-deaf right now," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"It's not taking into account the public anger, and the Afghan government's anger, about this rash of attacks which have been particularly horrific even by the horrific standards of Afghanistan," he said.

"The Trump administration has essentially called on Kabul to double down on a peace process that has not formally begun at a moment when the Afghan government has said it is off the table, at least for now."

- 'No alternative' to seeking peace -

Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran US diplomat who spent a year brokering the accord with the Taliban in Qatari hotels, said the insurgents were fulfilling their end of the bargain.

He condemned a deadly truck bombing claimed by the Taliban against an army base on Thursday but said the militants never promised to stop striking Afghan forces.

While saying the Taliban violated the "spirit" of the deal, Khalilzad said the rebels had not attacked coalition forces or targets inside major cities -- and stressed that the main US priority was ensuring the Taliban counter IS and Al-Qaeda.

He warned that the IS group was seeking to disrupt peace efforts.

"Although the recent violence has raised questions about the peace process and the path to peace," Khalilzad told reporters Friday, "we've known this from the beginning,"

"There is no alternative to pushing forward with peace," he said.

A political settlement would "reduce the burden on the United States" and also "make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a platform to attack the United States or our allies," he said.

Even in a deeply polarized Washington, there is broad support for Trump's efforts to stop "endless wars" and finish the unpopular Afghanistan mission.

Joe Biden, Trump's presumptive Democratic rival in the November election, was among the most critical voices of the Afghanistan war in Barack Obama's administration and has pledged to push forward with a withdrawal as president.

Criticism has come chiefly from conservative Republicans including Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, who has charged that the deal offers concessions to extremists without verification that the Taliban will live up to their promises.

- Questionable US leverage -

Both Ghani and the Taliban had only reluctantly agreed to peace talks, which Norway had offered to convene in March.

Laurel Miller, who served as special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan under both Obama and Trump, said the United States could still use financial leverage to press Kabul.

Ghani and his bitter election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have appeared to be reaching a compromise after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slashed $1 billion in aid to the cash-strapped nation out of anger over their bickering.

But the United States has lost ways to pressure the Taliban into talks, said Miller, the Asia director at the International Crisis Group, which studies peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

"The current US administration has made it perfectly clear that it wants to pull US forces out of Afghanistan. So how credible is, really, a threat to just stay?" she said.

"At the end of the day, the US cannot make the peace process happen.

"It can help create conditions for a peace process, it can push and prod the parties toward a peace process, it can try to catalyze the peace process and supporters internationally for it -- but it cannot literally make it happen."

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