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ANALYSIS

Amid a push for peace, Taliban escalates attacks

Col. Abdul Jalal Jalal looks at positions held by Taliban forces in Afghanistan's Farah province in February.

SHARIF HASSAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: December 3, 2018

KABUL — Everyone, it seems, is pushing for peace in Afghanistan these days. President Donald Trump's special envoy is racing around the region, trying to drum up support for talks with the insurgent Taliban. The Russians, eager to get into the act, have hosted a conference on the issue. The Pakistanis, long accused of abetting the insurgents, insist they want to help end the war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani hopes to win reelection in April as the man who brought peace to his country after 17 years.

The Taliban, however, seems to be in no hurry at all.

Last week, when Ghani laid out his upbeat vision of a "road map" to peace at a conference in Geneva, the response from the insurgents was scathing. They dismissed his government as a "powerless" foreign puppet and any discussion with its officials as a "waste of time." They said they were waging a holy war against American "invaders" and would negotiate only with them.

The insurgents reacted with the same dismissive scorn several days ago when U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a conference in California that the Trump administration wanted to solve the conflict without agreeing to withdraw troops.

"The valiant Afghan Muslim nation is absolutely determined to force the occupying American forces out of Afghanistan," Taliban officials declared in an online message. "We will not tire." The option of whether to withdraw troops, the group added, will not be "chosen by American generals."

The triumphalist tone of these broadsides was not new. But coupled with the insurgents' intensifying campaign of violence since a brief truce in June - attacking military bases and peaceful villages, bombing schools and election offices, besieging a major provincial capital - it seemed to signal a hardening resistance to negotiations, rather than a boastful opening gambit.

The Ghani government hopes that progress toward ending the war will ease public anxiety and revive the struggling economy. The Trump administration hopes to escape an unpopular war without abandoning a fragile country that could againbecome a base for international terrorism.

But the insurgents continue making steady gains in territorial control and influence, and periodically staging attacks in the capital. This comes despite a ratcheted-up U.S. military role that allows American troops and combat aircraft to provide faster support to Afghan ground forces - a strategy U.S. military officials here call part of the "drive toward a political solution."

The increase in such airstrikes has also led to an upsurge in civilian casualties that aggravates public sentiment. On Nov. 27, at least two dozen civilians, including women and children, were reported killed by a U.S. bombing in a Taliban-controlled area where Afghan forces had come under fire. A U.N. report said that in the first nine months of the year, airstrikes caused 313 deaths and 336 injuries - the most since 2009.

Diplomatically, the Taliban is enjoying new stature in the international arena, where neighboring powers see it as a foil to the more dangerous Islamic State. It dominated a recent conference in Moscow to which the Ghani government sent only a few civilian peace advisers, and its long-dormant office in Qatar has become a hive of activity.

"Their spirit is very high because they have found new allies," said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, an appointed member of the Afghan government's High Peace Council and a former U.N. envoy for the Taliban regime. Rather than rushing to talk with Afghans they don't respect and Americans they don't trust, he said, the insurgent leaders are "ready to make more sacrifices for their cause."

Mujahid and other analysts said it would be a mistake to view the Taliban's increasingly adept use of social media and sophisticated arguments as signs of more modern thinking or willingness to compromise. In February, the group issued a 17,000-word "Letter to the American People" that listed numerous reasons why U.S. investment in the conflict had been a costly mistake. But the group said that while it had a "preference" for peaceful dialogue, its will to fight was far from "sapped."

"They know they need to come out a bit from their isolation, but their thinking is still very rigid," Mujahid said. "They are not familiar with modern political systems. They totally reject the presidency and the constitution. Their beliefs are rooted in conservative rural and Islamic values. Whatever they might accept has to be within the framework and the language of Islamic scholarship."

The Taliban's major demands have remained the same for years, with the only variations being on its role in electoral, executive and territorial power. Among those demands: All foreign troops must leave, full Islamic law and customs must be implemented, and the political system must not conflict with them. One reason they abhor Ghani is that he married a foreign-born, Western-educated Christian.

Despite their bravado, some observers suggest, Taliban leaders are tired of fighting and have lost most public sympathy. The group suffered several sharp blows in June, when the brief cease-fire produced a spontaneous public clamor for peace, and the national council of Islamic clerics issued a decree calling attacks on civilians and suicide bombings un-Islamic.

But the contentious, confused atmosphere surrounding current plans for the presidential election - a process the insurgents disdain - is working in their favor. It has created an artificial deadline, distracted the political elite, and revived ethnic and partisan enmities, and it is likely to produce several dozen candidates, each with a different agenda for peace.

Some Afghan leaders have proposed delaying the polls and installing an interim government to oversee an election later next year. Many worry that if the U.S. government forces the peace process into an impossibly short time frame, it will be at a cost of democratic gains that the Taliban would never accept, or result in a weak deal that collapses as soon as foreign troops pull out.

Even Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's special envoy, whose mandate is to press hard to get negotiations underway, has urged that the election, scheduled for April 20, be postponed to focus the nation on the peace process and protect it from political interference.

"We are in a hurry to end the Afghan tragedy," Khalilzad told "PBS NewsHour" last week. ". . . Ideally, of course, it would be good to have an agreement with the Taliban first and then have the presidential election," in which the Taliban could participate as voters.

But Ghani has strongly opposed a delay, and election officials announced recently that the April date will hold. This means the next five months will probably be consumed by rancorous ethnic politics, while the insurgents bide their time and continue using violence to remind the public that their goals have not wavered and that fighting remains an open-ended option.

"For the Taliban, a few months is nothing after decades of war, and their goals are religious, not political," said Wahid Mojdah, an analyst and former diplomatic aide under the Taliban regime from 1999 to 2001. "A year ago they wanted a quarter of the cake. Now they want half. Maybe in the future they will want it all."

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