Peace talks to resume under shadow of targeted Afghan killings

A member of a bomb disposal unit prepares to move out to territory around Kandahar city recently retaken from Taliban control.


By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Bloomberg | Published: January 5, 2021

Battling a resurgence in violence including a campaign of targeted killings of journalists, Afghanistan's government is set Tuesday to resume peace talks with the Taliban, with efforts expected to be focused on securing a cease-fire agreement in the last days of Donald Trump's presidency.

Since the intra-Afghan talks began in September in the Qatari capital of Doha, where the Taliban have a political office, violence has increased nationwide, including an attack on Kabul University that killed dozens of students and Taliban attempts to capture Lashkar Gah and Kandahar cities in the southern region.

"The current levels of violence, including targeted killings, is unacceptable," Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, said in a series of tweets as he prepared to head to Doha, two weeks before Trump is due to leave office. "Both sides must demonstrate they are acting in the best interest of the Afghan people by making real compromises and negotiating an agreement on a political settlement as soon as possible and an immediate significant reduction in violence/cease-fire."

Trump has long been determined to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. Under a deal signed with Taliban in February, the U.S. is seeking to leave the country by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism assurances from the Taliban. The country is planning to reduce its military presence this month by about 2,000 from 4,500 troops, who are providing air support for Afghan forces.

After a break of almost a month, the second round of the talks "will be lengthier and more important," said Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat in Pakistan who is now an independent political analyst in Kabul. In addition to the cease-fire, the two sides will also negotiate the structure of a future Afghan government.

"We'll discuss the most important agenda -- the violence reduction or a comprehensive cease-fire," according to Ghulam Farooq Majrooh, a member of Afghanistan's negotiating team. The targeted killings of journalists, civilian activists and others will also be on the agenda, he added.

The Taliban "are interested in establishing an interim government," Abdul Hafiz Mansour, another member of the Afghan negotiating team, told reporters on Sunday.

But President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly denied the idea, saying it would reverse the hard-won achievements, including in human rights, made in the past two decades.

Since November, journalists across the country have been targeted by unknown armed militants.

The fifth reporter killed, Bismillah Adil Aimaq, was shot dead in Ghowr province on Jan. 1, according to Afghanistan Journalists Center. Elyas Daee from the Afghan branch of U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe -- or Radio Azadi -- Rahmatullah Nikzad from Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, and Malala Maiwand, who worked as an anchor for a local TV channel are among the dead. A further two journalists have also died in Kabul of unknown causes.

In an address to the country's parliament on Monday, Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi, who had been summoned over security failures to thwart the killings, blamed the Taliban for the journalists' deaths, citing "accurate intelligence evidence and confessions from arrested perpetrators."

Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, denied the group was responsible for the attacks in emailed statements and a series of tweets.

The head of National Directorate of Security, the country's intelligence agency, Ahmad Zia Saraj -- who was also summoned to parliament over the violence -- told lawmakers that Taliban insurgents carried out about 18,500 attacks in one year and have no "pure intentions for peace."