Fractured Afghan peace process resumes as common enemy is weakened

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - President Donald ’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day put cancelled negotiations between the US and the Taliban back on the agenda.

But divisions remain between Washington, the Taliban and the government in Kabul, which was left out of earlier negotiations.

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Wednesday as the State Department announced he would next travel to Doha.

There, Mr Khalilzad would meet the Taliban “to discuss steps that could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire”.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met Mr Khalilzad and discussed issues including the Taliban’s sanctuaries outside Afghanistan and a ceasefire, presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told The National.

Mr Trump, while visiting troops at the Bagram air base, about an hour north of Kabul, said the Taliban “didn’t want to do a ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire, I believe”.

President Donald Trump with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Mark Milley addresses members of the military during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. AP

Trump's visit to Bagram Airfield outside Kabul was brief. Reuters

President Donald Trump said o the US had resumed talks with Taliban insurgents as he made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with troops. Reuters

A US soldier looks through night vision goggles while riding with the Presidential Motorcade. Reuters

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley before addressing the troops at Bagram Air Field during a surprise Thanksgiving day visitin Afghanistan. AFP

On a brief visit to Bagram Airfield outside the capital Kabul, Mr Trump served turkey dinner to soldiers, posed for photographs and delivered a speech. AFP

Afghan's President Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with US President Donald Trump. AFP

Soldiers take pictures of US President Donald Trump. AFP

About 13,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, 18 years after the United States invaded after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump said he planned to reduce the number to 8,600 without giving further details.

US President Donald Trump poses for selfies. AFP

US President Donald Trump serves Thanksgiving dinner. AFP

President Donald Trump, left, listens as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. AP

President Donald Trump speaks during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. AP

U.S. President Donald Trump eats dinner with US troops. AP

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But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The National on Thursday that “no decision has yet been made on the ceasefire”.

Previous negotiations between the US and the Taliban focused on a peace deal involving an American troop withdrawal, among other conditions, paving the way for eventual Afghan talks that would include the government.

Mr Khalilzad on Wednesday praised the efforts of the US, Afghan government and the Taliban after major gains against ISIS in Nangarhar, the eastern province bordering Pakistan, which was the group’s main base.

“Effective operations by US Coalition and Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS losing territory and fighters," he said on Twitter.

"Hundreds surrendered. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress."

Hundreds of ISIS fighters have surrendered to the government in Nangarhar in recent weeks, with the presidential palace putting their remaining number at “below 300”, down from several thousand this year.

“Daesh’s backbone has been broken,” Mr Ghani declared in late November.

Smaller ISIS cells remain throughout Afghanistan and the group has staged large-scale attacks across Kabul. In one of the most brutal attacks this year, an ISIS suicide bomber killed at least 60 people at a wedding celebration in August.

Although the US, Afghan government and Taliban have been fighting ISIS, the Taliban denied there was any collaboration.

“The Kabul administration did not defeat IS, and residents of Nangarhar have witnessed this too,” Zabiullah Mujahid said on WhatsApp.

He claimed the victory was achieved by “the heroes of the mujahideen”.

“The Kabul administration and their foreign partners had difficulties when it came to their operations against IS, which prolonged the operation,” Mr Mujahid said.

While the presidential palace declined to comment on Mr Khalilzad’s tweet, Mr Ghani’s spokesman said the Afghan security forces’ latest successes against ISIS were "unprecedented".

“The Taliban have provided a breeding ground for many terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” Mr Seddiqi said.

Afghan security forces take part in an operation against ISIS in Achin district of Nangarhar province on November 25, 2019. AFP
Afghan security forces take part in an operation against ISIS in Achin district of Nangarhar province on November 25, 2019. AFP

A US army spokesman did not respond when asked for comment.

Eighteen years of conflict since the 2001 US-led invasion have devastated much of Afghanistan and taken a heavy toll on its people.

The UN documented 8,239 civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2019, including 2,563 deaths.

The result of the presidential election two months ago still has not been declared, with candidates accusing each other of fraud.

Despite the breakdown in negotiations, the US and Taliban organised a prisoner swap, accompanied by a partial and unofficial ceasefire in Zabul province to the south of Kabul.

The Taliban released American hostage Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, university professors captured in Kabul, in exchange for Anas Haqqani and other senior members of the group.

Mr Trump, who cancelled talks with the Taliban on Twitter in September, said the group wants a deal “very badly”.

“For a period of time, we’ve been working to make a deal," he said during his visit to Afghanistan.

"We’ve made tremendous progress over the last six months and at the same time we’ve been drawing down our troops."

Afghanistan celebrated 100 years of independence this year but, between undeclared election results and stalled peace talks, the nation is in limbo.

“People are anxious,” says Masiullah Mohammad, a business owner in Kabul. “Many have stopped purchasing houses or planning ahead.

"Everything is stalled because there is so much uncertainty, so much violence. We need clarity – and peace.”

Updated: December 6, 2019 09:50 AM

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