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U.S. races for Taliban deal, but Afghan peace further away

Reuters

Afghan National Army soldier walks at the site of a blast in Kabul on Tuesday.

AFP-Jiji WASHINGTON (AFP-Jiji) — After nearly two decades in Afghanistan, the United States is racing to reach an agreement with the Taliban within two months, but a broader peace deal for the war-ravaged country looks far more elusive.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a rare position widely backed by the rival Democratic Party, is impatient to pull the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, believing nothing more can be achieved from the military operation launched after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

On a visit to Kabul in late June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States is seeking a deal with the Islamist extremist Taliban by Sept. 1 — before Afghanistan’s elections, which could throw in a new element of chaos.

U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has met seven times with the Taliban and, in a potentially major first step, the insurgents have agreed to meet a wide range of Afghans starting Sunday in Qatar.

The Taliban have steadfastly refused to negotiate with the internationally recognized government in Kabul.

In Doha, any Afghan officials will participate in “personal capacity and on equal footing” with the Taliban, according to Germany, which organized the meeting alongside Qatar.

“I think there is a strong possibility that there could be an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban even sooner than September, but an agreement that is just between the U.S. and the Taliban is not a peace agreement for Afghanistan,” said Laurel Miller, who served as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under both Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.

“It doesn’t address the really hard questions of what role the Taliban is going to play or not play in governing Afghanistan and what happens to the current government and system of government that the United States helped set up,” said Miller, now the Asia program director at the International Crisis Group.

The apparent U.S. breakthrough with the Taliban is simply because the Trump administration made a concession by agreeing to negotiate even though the insurgents are not talking to Kabul, she said.

An agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two main points — a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a commitment by the militants not to provide a base for terrorists, the main reason for the U.S. invasion 18 years ago.

The United States, which by some estimates has spent $1 trillion in Afghanistan, will likely try to insist in the agreement that the Taliban open negotiations with President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

But Scott Smith, deputy director of the Afghanistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that neither the Taliban nor Kabul has prepared much for negotiations on what the country will look like.

“I don’t think anybody has thought about that too far, and certainly not the main parties,” he said.

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