Pakistan says Taliban show 'willingness' to reduce Afghan violence

Updated 16 Jan 2020

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Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said  the Taliban has shown “a willingness” to reduce violence in war-torn Afghanistan after more than 18 years fighting the US. — File
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the Taliban has shown “a willingness” to reduce violence in war-torn Afghanistan after more than 18 years fighting the US. — File

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Thursday said the Taliban have shown “a willingness” to reduce violence in war-torn Afghanistan after more than 18 years fighting the US, sparking speculation that a potential breakthrough in talks with the Americans may be near.

Negotiations between the Taliban and the US have repeatedly stalled, with Washington calling on the insurgent group to reduce violence before they can resume.

“Today, positive progress has been made, the Taliban have shown their willingness to reduce the violence, which was a demand [...] it's a step towards the peace agreement,” said the minister in a video statement.

He gave no further details.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the official Taliban spokesman, told AFP the Taliban were looking into the comments.

The Taliban and the US were on the brink of announcing a withdrawal deal in September last year when President Donald Trump abruptly declared the process “dead”, citing Taliban violence.

Talks were later restarted between the two sides in December in Qatar, but were paused following an attack near the Bagram military base in Afghanistan.

Islamabad has helped facilitate the talks between the militants and Washington in Qatar over the past year, seeking an agreement that would pave the way for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for various security promises from the insurgents.

Any agreement with the Taliban is expected to have two main pillars — an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and a commitment by the insurgents not to offer sanctuary to jihadists.

The Taliban's relationship with Al-Qaeda was the main reason cited for the US invasion nearly 18 years ago.

The Taliban have until now refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate regime, raising fears that fighting will continue regardless of any deal ironed out with the Americans.

Taliban say they handed cease-fire offer to US peace envoy

The Taliban have given the US envoy their offer for a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan that would last between seven and 10 days, Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations said on Thursday.

The offer is seen as an opportunity to open a window to an eventual peace deal that would allow the United States to bring home its estimated 13,000 troops and end the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest conflict.

The cease-fire offer was handed to Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s envoy for talks with the insurgents, late on Wednesday in Qatar, a Gulf Arab country where the Taliban maintain a political office. A US official confirmed Khalilzad had received a Taliban response and said the US was evaluating, without offering any details.

Khalilzad has been pressing for a cease-fire but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Taliban proposal would be enough to allow for the on-again off-again talks between the Taliban and the US to restart, with the aim of eventually signing a peace deal.

Previously, Khalilzad said a US-Taliban deal would also include the start of negotiations among Afghans on both sides of the conflict to hammer out a so-called road map to a post-war Afghanistan. That road map would tackle thorny issues such as a permanent cease-fire, women’s and minority rights, and the fate of thousands of Taliban fighters as well as militias loyal to Kabul’s warlords.

But the Taliban have been refusing to talk with the Kabul government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The two are currently fighting over who won last year’s presidential elections. The initial vote count gave Ghani the win but Abdullah, who came in second, is contesting the count. A final outcome has yet to be announced by Afghanistan’s election commission.

Last September, the Taliban and the US appeared close to signing a deal when an upsurge in Taliban attacks, including the killing of another US soldier, prompted President Donald Trump to scrap the talks. On Thanksgiving, during his first visit to US troops in Afghanistan, Trump softened his stance, saying the Taliban were ready to make a deal, though both Kabul and Washington insisted the Taliban would have to show a sign of good faith by reducing their attacks.

In December, the Taliban leadership headquartered in Pakistan agreed to put forth a temporary cease-fire offer after weeks of consultation.

A Taliban official said mistrust has long characterised the US-Taliban talks and the insurgents hesitated to offer a more permanent cease-fire without having US troops pull out first. Should the truce deal fall through, returning Taliban fighters to the battlefield with the same intensity could be a problem, the official said.

“There was a thinking within the Taliban ranks that it would be difficult for them to reorganise fighters after a break in fighting,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.

Taliban fighters were also unwilling to lay down their arms, “thinking it’s their fighting that’s forcing the US to come to the table,” he said.

The Taliban today control around half of Afghanistan and continue to stage near-daily attacks targeting Afghan and US forces, Afghan government officials or those seen as loyal to the Kabul administration but many civilians are also dying in the crossfire of the insurgent attacks, as well as in operations against the Taliban carried out by Afghan and US forces.

In Kabul, some officials have rejected any suggestion that a reduction in violence would be an acceptable alternative to a cease-fire. While the term has been tossed around, including by the US, it isn’t clear exactly what would constitute a reduction or how it would be defined. For example, it’s not clear if it would mean no high profile attacks or no attacks inside cities.