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Troubled Afghan-Taliban peace talks resume amid violence, accusations

By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: January 5, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan delegates flew to Qatar on Tuesday to reopen peace talks with Taliban leaders amid a rash of mutual recriminations, mixed signals from U.S. officials and a continued spate of assassinations targeting prominent civilians.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat who brokered a separate U.S. deal with the Taliban in February, arrived in Kabul on Tuesday from Doha, the Qatari capital and Taliban political base. He tweeted that he hoped "both sides" would make "real compromises" that would lead to "tangible progress" in the talks, which began in September but have failed to address any major issues.

But while both Afghan and Taliban officials have issued recent statements saying they were committed to the talks and hoped to settle the 19-year conflict through discussions, their messages were tinged with anger and blame that boded ill for the new round. Some observers in Kabul predicted that the talks, which are resuming after a two-week holiday hiatus, would probably collapse.

 The "demand of Afghanistan's people is that the bloodshed should end forever in this country," Massoom Stanekzai, a former national intelligence chief who heads the Kabul delegation, said in a video message posted Tuesday on Twitter. "Afghanistan's people suffer from the terror that the war has created every day, every night, every moment."

The Taliban, sidestepping the issue of civilian killings, issued a harsh statement Monday that lashed out at the U.S. government, denouncing what it said were U.S. military airstrikes on civilian areas. It warned that "such pernicious actions" could both threaten their February pact and "jeopardize" progress in resolving issues among Afghans, "turning nascent hopes to despair."

American military officials here responded with unusual speed and sharpness, saying Monday that U.S. stated policy is to "defend Afghan forces" against Taliban attacks. For the first time, they also directly blamed the insurgents for a recent spate of targeted killings of journalists, civic leaders and government officials.

Taliban spokesmen have denied similar charges by Afghan officials and suggested that they amount to a "survival tactic" by the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who narrowly won reelection last year but has lost public support as violence and economic problems persist.

"The Taliban's accusations [that] the US violated the US-TB agreement are false," tweeted Col. Sonny Leggett, the U.S. military spokesman here. "The Taliban's campaign of unclaimed attacks & targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must also cease for peace to succeed."

The status of the U.S.-Taliban pact, while seemingly unrelated to the domestic issues of religion, power-sharing and democratic freedoms that Afghan and Taliban leaders are slated to negotiate, is a critical but highly contested factor in the Afghan talks.

Under that deal, the Trump administration agreed to gradually withdraw most U.S. troops by early this year, acceding to the insurgents' most important demand. There are now about 5,000 troops in the country, and that number is slated to drop to 2,500 by next month. In return, Taliban negotiators agreed to reduce violence, avoid targeting American forces and cut ties with al-Qaida and other extremists.

Many Afghans say the Taliban has failed to fulfill those pledges and that the U.S. concessions gave the religious militia too much leverage over a weak Afghan government at the current talks. The insurgents, meanwhile, are worried that the incoming Biden administration will set further conditions before continuing the promised troop drawdown.

At the moment, though, the message from Washington, amid a tense and contested presidential transition, is confused. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the Taliban for not killing any Americans since the pact was signed, suggesting that it will hold. The next day, the U.S. military denounced the rash of civilian killings as an obstacle to peace.

Khalilzad, who is meeting with Pakistani, Afghan and Taliban leaders during his current regional visit in an effort to improve the chances for revived talks, called the targeted killings "unacceptable" but did not directly accuse the Taliban.

He also hinted at problems on the Afghan side, including disputes between Ghani and some negotiators, who insist that an interim government must be installed because the Taliban refuses to recognize his administration and will never make peace with it.

Other divisions exist about how hard to press the Taliban for a nationwide cease-fire, which it has resisted. In a statement Tuesday welcoming the resumption of talks, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said a "cessation in fighting would create a better atmosphere for talks" and allow emergency winter aid to reach rural areas.

On Monday, Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi told a group of lawmakers that the Taliban is preparing to launch a "full-scale" war in the coming months, ordering fighters to keep going through the bitterly cold winter instead of waiting for their traditional spring offensive.

Taliban officials declared Monday that they are now "in a relatively stronger political and military position" than at any previous time. Their efforts to act as a "responsible party" and resolve differences through talks, they warned, "should never be read as weakness."

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The Washington Post's Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.