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ANALYSIS

Peace talks faltering, violence has surged, US troops are leaving — Can the Afghan government withstand the pressure?

By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: January 13, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan — Growing uncertainty over peace talks with the Taliban, a drumbeat of targeted killings and the looming withdrawal of U.S. troops have raised tension here to a fever pitch, prompting calls for President Ashraf Ghani to step down and an interim government to take over.

Supporters of the idea say it would offer a better chance of settling the 20-year war in Afghanistan and ending the relentless bloodshed, given that the Taliban refuse to recognize Ghani's government as legitimate. Opponents call it a dangerous, irresponsible gambit that would benefit an assortment of opportunistic politicians eager to grab a share in power.

"The only way to break the current deadlock is to form an interim government," said Jafar Mahdavi, a former legislator who is involved in the peace talks process. "The Taliban won't accept Ghani's rule, and they won't join his government."

Ghani has repeatedly insisted that he will remain in office for his full five-year term and see the peace talks to fruition.

But a new round of negotiations, which have made almost no headway since they started in September, stalled this week, as two of the top Taliban negotiators failed to return to the talks in Qatar after visiting Pakistan for consultations.

The group's spokesman in Doha, the Qatari capital, tweeted Saturday that the negotiating teams were still working on preparing a substantive agenda for the talks. But delegates to the talks from Kabul said the process had been further slowed by the unexplained absence of the top two Taliban negotiators, Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai.

Baradar, a founder of the Taliban movement, spent eight years in prison in Pakistan but was released in 2018, at the United States' request, to participate in the peace process.

The role of Pakistan in the peace talk process has taken on sudden new importance in the past several weeks. The country has long said it supports the talks and seeks a stable Afghanistan. But it has also hosted fugitive Taliban leaders for years and sheltered violent anti-Afghan militias that operate along the long, porous border between the neighboring Muslim countries.

Complicating matters for the Afghan government is a Friday deadline for U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be reduced from 5,000 to about 2,500. This was the chief demand of the militants, who signed a separate deal with U.S. officials in February.

The troop reduction could cause the Afghan government to lose much of its remaining leverage in the talks. Ghani's position was already weakened when he agreed to release about 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters under U.S. pressure to seal the February pact.

Pentagon officials said Tuesday that the troop drawdown was expected to proceed as planned, even though it is widely opposed in Congress. A recently enacted defense policy bill bars the U.S. government from using funds to pay for it without a "comprehensive interagency assessment of the risks and impacts" of leaving only a minimal U.S. military presence in the country.

Another stumbling block in the talks is the continued high level of Taliban attacks. A recent spate of unclaimed targeted killings, including shootings and car bombs, has left several dozen civic and democratic activists, journalists, government officials and others dead. Afghan officials have blamed the Taliban for the attacks, and U.S. military officials made the same accusation last week.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's special envoy for Afghan peace, made a whirlwind visit to the region this past week, holding meetings in Pakistan and Qatar as well as Kabul in an attempt to ensure the survival of the U.S.-Taliban deal and press for a nationwide cease-fire to accompany the Doha talks.

Khalilzad met with a variety of political leaders and diplomats here, but Ghani refused to see him. The president, like many Afghans, felt betrayed by the generous terms of the deal he brokered with the insurgents. Now they view Khalilzad as pushing too hard for a quick settlement among Afghans, especially amid local media reports that he was encouraging an interim government. Last week Khalilzad called on both sides to reduce violence but did not blame the Taliban for the recent targeted attacks.

The leader of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, said in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday that the United States is not pushing for a new government.

"We have not advocated, and the United States is not advocating, an interim government," he wrote. "The outcomes of Afghanistan Peace Negotiations are up to Afghans & we believe those outcomes should reflect the wishes & aspirations of the Afghan people."

Abdullah Abdullah, head of the government council for peace and reconciliation, has said for months that he would be open to the creation of an interim government if that would help the prospects for peace. Abdullah was Ghani's top rival for the presidency in the past two elections.

"We have to be flexible in our thoughts," Abdullah told an international virtual conference last year. "Nothing should derail us from getting to a durable, lasting and acceptable peace for all Afghans, including the Taliban."

Some Afghan officials and experts have called for an interim government to be used only as a last resort.

"To form an interim government now would be premature and irresponsible," said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. "It would mean dismantling the current government, and the members would have no real authority to make an agreement. There would be bound to be infighting among them. This might be a possible outcome of talks, but it cannot come first."

But fears remain about what an interim government would mean for the democratic gains made since the Taliban was forced out of power.

"The people of Afghanistan are not supporting an interim government because there is no guarantee its formation could end the war in the country," said Mohammad Khalid Momand, a member of parliament. "Afghans don't want to lose the achievements of the past 18 years."

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