The Biden administration is seeking to bring violence to a halt and help form an interim government in the country. What is the Afghan government’s stand?
The story so far: The Joe Biden administration has proposed a new peace plan to the Afghan government and the Taliban, seeking to bring violence to a halt and form an interim government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’s special envoy for Afghanistan, delivered to the Afghan leader in Kabul last week, detailing the proposal.
What is the American proposal?
In the letter, which was first published by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, Mr. Blinken has asked the Afghan President to show “urgent leadership.. in the coming weeks”. The proposal included many elements. First, Mr. Blinken has proposed a UN-led conference of representatives of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the U.S. “to discuss a unified approach to support peace in Afghanistan”.
Second, Mr. Khalilzad will share written proposals with the Afghan leadership and the Taliban to accelerate talks. It urges both sides to reach a consensus on Afghanistan’s future constitutional and governing arrangements; find a road map to a new “inclusive government”; and agree on the terms of a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”. Mr. Blinken has also proposed a senior level meeting of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Turkey to discuss power sharing, reduction of violence and other specific goals.
Why the U.S. is making this peace push?
The Biden administration is currently reviewing its Afghan strategy. While the review is not completed, there is a consensus within the administration, as Mr. Blinken has pointed out, that “accelerating the peace process” is the best way to advance the shared interests of the U.S. and the Afghan government. According to the agreement the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February 2020, American troops – currently some 2,500 troops are in Afghanistan – are set to leave the country by May 1. The Taliban have warned that if the U.S. troops are not out by the deadline, they will step up fighting. The Taliban and the Afghan government started peace talks in Doha in September last year but reached no breakthrough. The Biden administration is concerned about the slow pace of the talks.
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The U.S. assessment is that if American troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban would make quick gains. When Austin Miller, the commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, was recently asked by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins if he thought that the Afghan Army could secure the country alone, he didn’t give a direct answer. They have to,” he said.
In his letter to Mr. Ghani, Mr. Blinken was blunter about the Taliban’s advances. “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options. Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the U.S. to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” he writes.
So, the Biden administration’s assessment is that the Taliban are on the ascent. It hopes that the best way to prevent a complete Taliban takeover is a regional peace process and an interim unity government. The Taliban are yet to respond to America’s proposal.
What is the Afghan government’s stand?
The Ghani administration has consistently been critical of the U.S.’s direct outreach to the Taliban. The Trump administration held direct talks with the Taliban, excluding the government. Later, Washington put pressure on Kabul to release Taliban prisoners as part of an agreement it reached with the insurgents. Even when the Doha talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were under way, Mr. Ghani made it clear that he, as elected President, is the only legitimate representative of the Afghan people and he resisted making concessions to the Taliban. “My power rests on my legitimacy,” he said recently. “The moment that legitimacy is gone, the whole thing implodes.”
The relationship between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Khalilzad reportedly broke down in recent months. When Mr. Blinken’s letter was leaked, Mr. Ghani was quick to respond. He reiterated his opposition to any transfer of power except through elections. His Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a hardline critic of the Taliban, said the U.S. “can make a decision on their troops, not on the people of Afghanistan”.
While the Afghan government’s opposition to sharing power with the Taliban is well known, it is not clear whether Mr. Ghani could continue to resist American pressure, especially if the U.S. brings regional powers, including India, on board. And if the Biden administration decides to stick to the Taliban deal and withdraw troops by May, Mr. Ghani would be in a tougher spot. He doesn’t have any good options. If he rejects the American offer, the war will continue forever. The Taliban have already taken over much of the country’s hinterlands and are breathing down the neck of its cities. If he accepts the proposal, he will have to share power with the Taliban and discuss amendments to the Constitution and the future governance framework. Either way, the Taliban are set to make gains.
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