December 7, 2019
ISLAMABAD – The United States and the Taliban restarted peace negotiations Saturday, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly stopped the yearlong process aimed at finding a political settlement with the insurgent group and ending the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghan-born U.S. special reconciliation representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, led his team at Saturday’s meeting in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where insurgent negotiators are based, a U.S. source told VOA.
“The U.S. rejoined talks today in Doha. The focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a cease-fire,” said the U.S. source.
A Taliban spokesman tweeted at the conclusion of the meeting that the two sides will reconvene on Sunday to continue the discussions.
“The talks started from where they were stopped. We discussed the signing of the agreement and related matters,” said Suhail Shaheen. He shared no further details.
The Qatari government played host to the U.S.-Taliban dialogue before it was halted by Trump on September 7 in retaliation for an insurgent attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, that killed an American solider among others.
Terms of a possible deal
The disruption in the talks had come at a crucial stage when both sides were believed to have come close to concluding an agreement that could have set the stage for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan.
In return, the deal would have outlined the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees in insurgent-controlled Afghan areas and given assurances the rebels would immediately engage in intra-Afghan negotiations for permanently ending decades of hostilities in the country.
The Taliban says its fighters also would have observed a cease-fire with foreign troops in areas of troop withdrawal. However, the Taliban insist matters related to cessation of hostilities with Afghan security forces would only be on the agenda when Taliban-Afghan negotiations are launched. The insurgents are reluctant to observe a nationwide cease-fire, fearing it would undermine their military leverage.
Analysts are skeptical whether Khalilzad and his team would be able to overcome the challenges.
General urges caution
Gen John Nicholson, a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, on Friday cautioned against entering into a deal with the Taliban that does not bind the insurgents to cease nationwide hostilities or reduce the level of violence. The retired four-star general, who headed the military coalition until September 2018, spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Meridian International Center, a non-partisan, public diplomacy organization in Washington.
“The cease-fire on the part of the Taliban, as some of them have said publicly, reduces their leverage. Well, a troop withdrawal on the part of the coalition reduces our military leverage,” Nicholson noted.
“To simply negotiate a deal that allows for the withdrawal of international forces and some sort of renunciation of terrorism, in my view, will not last. And therefore it would not protect our security interest nor will it protect the gains that need to be preserved inside Afghanistan,” the general said.
Nicholson insisted in some U.S. public discourse about the cost of Afghan war the costs are inflated. He said the true cost of the Afghan war for the United States is less. “We were spending about $25 billion a year inside the country when we had less than 14,000 troops, where as the number you see talked about in terms of cost today are more than double that.”
Nicholson said the presence of a U.S. counterterrorism mission in post-withdrawal Afghanistan must also be part of the negotiations with the Taliban to deter future terrorist attacks on America.