Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered a dark assessment Friday of his government’s attempt to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, asserting that “violence has peaked” in Afghanistan in recent months, with the militants “finding one excuse after another” not to embrace the talks.
Mr. Ghani’s comments, during an Aspen Institute conference call, coincide with a Biden administration review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, where a wave of recent terrorist attacks have badly undermined the major “reduction in violence” deal that the former Trump administration reached with the Taliban nearly a year ago.
The February 2020 deal set in motion a major prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government, after which “there was an expectation that genuine peace talks would take place,” Mr. Ghani said Friday. But that hasn’t happened with any serious momentum, he said, lamenting that “peace has not been socialized to the Taliban commanders or rank-and-files.”
To the contrary, Taliban operatives have been “taking pictures with suicide bombers,” the Afghan president said, asserting that “the Taliban must agree to end their sanctuary” for terrorist groups if the struggling peace process is to survive — sobering remarks at a moment when U.S. and other NATO members continue to pull forces from Afghanistan under the Trump-era reduction in violence deal.
The deal that Special U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reached with Taliban representatives last year stipulated that the Taliban would stop providing sanctuary to the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other outside terrorist groups and begin talks with the Afghan government in exchange for a U.S. commitment to initially draw down and then fully pull American troops from Afghanistan by May of this year.
Taliban officials, who visited Russia this week, claimed they’ve kept up their end of the deal. The Associated Press reported that Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, who led the Taliban delegation that met for two days with senior Russian diplomats, said Friday that the militants expect the U.S. to fulfill its pledge to withdraw all American troops by May.
The Biden administration said this week that it has begun a full review of the agreements reached with the Taliban during the Trump era. While newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration has asked Mr. Khalilzad to remain in the special envoy role, he stressed that “one of the first things we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements.”
On Thursday, officials at the Pentagon said they believe the Taliban has failed to meet its commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan, raising serious questions about whether or not all U.S. troops will be able to leave by the May 2021 goal.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. stands for now by its commitment for a full troop withdrawal, but stressed the “Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and reduce their ties to al-Qaida.”
“Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement,” Mr. Kirby told a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. “But we’re still committed to that.”
The U.S.-Taliban peace agreement called for Washington to reduce troop levels to 2,500, and then to remove all forces by May, the AP said. The news agency maintained in a report on Thursday that Mr. Trump’s order for U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan to be cut to 2,500 just days before he left office presented Mr. Biden with difficult decisions about how to retain leverage against the Taliban in support of peace talks.
Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and former CIA director, expressed concern Friday that too rapid a U.S. force drawdown could be disastrous.
Mr. Petraeus, who appeared alongside Mr. Ghani on the Aspen Institute conference call, said he has a “nagging fear as an old soldier” that the situation could devolve into “the kind of civil war that we saw in the 1990s after the departure of the Soviets.”
His comments were a reference to the violent chaos that took hold of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of military forces from the former Soviet Union, which had occupied the country from 1979 through early-1989. The period ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban, which captured Kabul in 1996 and later hosted Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, which is credited with carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.