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February 24, 2021

Afghan peace talks resume amid hopes of ceasefire

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February 24, 2021

ISLAMABAD: With violence spiking, the Afghan warring sides have returned to the negotiation table, ending more than a month of delays amid hopes that the two sides can agree on reduction in violence - and eventually, an outright ceasefire, foreign media reported.

Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem tweeted Monday night that talks had resumed in Qatar.

There were no details other than the atmosphere was “cordial”, a commitment that negotiations should continue and an announcement that the first item of business will be setting the agenda, reports the international media. The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and Nato is a serious reduction in violence leading to a ceasefire. The Taliban have said it is negotiable, but so far there is no immediate ceasefire. Washington is reviewing the February 2020 peace deal the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1.

There is even a suggestion of a smaller intelligence - based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism and an increasingly active and deadly Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan. But neither Washington nor Nato has yet announced a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict, retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who negotiated the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban and until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward.

While details of the meetings have been sketchy, Afghanistan featured prominently and officials familiar with the talks said a reduction in violence and eventual ceasefire dominated discussions. Pakistan, which also still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees has repeatedly said the only solution in Afghanistan is political and has previously been credited with getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Still the issues ahead for Taliban and Afghan government are thorny ones and it isn’t immediately clear whether any country has sufficient influence with either side to force a peace deal that will last. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has flatly refused an interim administration, and his critics accuse him of wanting to hold on to power.

Meanwhile, a Taliban official says they want a “new Islamic government” that would not include Ghani, but refused to give details of this government and whether it would even include elections. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. In an open letter to the American people last week, the Taliban’s lead negotiator in the U.S./Taliban deal, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged compliance with the deal, promised rights for men and women based on Islamic law without stipulating, vowed not to interfere in any other nation, and also vowed to end the world’s largest crop of poppies.