Category Archives: Afghanistan

(Economist) America and the Taliban inch towards a peace deal in Afghanistan

(Economist) But the tricky bit will be to get the Taliban talking to the government

AS HE LEFT the Qatari capital of Doha on August 5th, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s envoy for Afghan peace talks, did not quite say that a deal with the Taliban was a matter of crossing the “i”s and dotting the “t”s, but he came close. He declared that the two sides had made “excellent progress” towards an agreement that would allow America to bring its troops home. What was left, he said, were “technical details” and “steps and mechanisms” for implementing it. But the devil may be in those details.

The essence of the deal, which Mr Khalilzad has said he wishes to strike by September 1st, before Afghanistan’s election on September 28th, is simple enough. America will pull troops out of Afghanistan, satisfying the Taliban’s principal war aim, and in return the Taliban will sever their ties to transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and promise that Afghan soil will not be used for attacks, dealing with the problem that led America to invade 18 years ago.

Of course, things are more complicated than that. One question is how many troops America will withdraw, and how quickly it will do so. A related one is how it will enforce the Taliban’s side of the bargain. In February President Donald Trump insisted that America could return if things took a turn for the worse. “We have very fast airplanes,” he boasted, and “very good cargo planes”. But collecting intelligence on terrorists, let alone confronting them, will be harder with fewer spies, special forces and drones in the country.

These are not insurmountable issues. On August 6th the Taliban claimed that they had been resolved (Mr Khalilzad was more circumspect). A sequenced approach is most likely. The Washington Post has reported that America will withdraw 5,000 to 6,000 of the 14,000 troops currently in Afghanistan (another 8,500 or so mostly-European troops are deployed too) as part of the deal. That is all but settled. The remainder are likely to leave gradually—over two years, according to the New York Times; 15 months, according to others—and only after separate negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government hashed out details of power-sharing, constitutional changes and the like. The result would be a roadmap or framework agreement, with finer points filled in along the way.

But those “intra-Afghan” negotiations are the most serious sticking point. “The negotiations between the Taliban and the United States were the easy part,” says Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, and a former State Department official. The Taliban have long denounced the Kabul government as little more than an American puppet. They have refused to talk directly to the government until an American withdrawal is complete—at which point their leverage would be far greater.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the Taliban might come round to talking to their foes in Kabul. On July 7th-8th, representatives from Afghanistan’s government, opposition, civil society and media—all attending in their personal capacities—met 17 Taliban members at an intra-Afghan conference in Doha organised by Germany and Qatar. That was pathbreaking. There had been similar gatherings in February and May, but they had not included Afghan officials, according to Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group. Encouragingly, the delegation in July included 11 women, among them the deputy head of Afghanistan’s national security council. All sides agreed to the suitably vague formula of “Afghan all-inclusive negotiations”.

A related problem is who speaks for Kabul. With an election looming, it is unclear whether the Taliban would end up negotiating with representatives of Mr Ghani, who hopes to secure a second term, or one of his 17 rivals for the presidency. If the election is marred by violence or mishandled (as were parliamentary polls in October 2018, in which a third of polling stations did not open and biometric voting machines bamboozled election workers) the victor’s legitimacy, and his authority to agree far-reaching deals with the Taliban, might be in doubt. Mr Khalilzad has mooted delaying the ballot; Mr Ghani disagrees. “There is no compromise over elections. None. Any move to trespass the constitution under any pretext will be a coup,” tweeted Amrullah Saleh, Mr Ghani’s principal running mate, on August 7th.

For Ms Miller, the coincidence of the election and the peace process will cause serious problems. “This is a train crash that many have seen coming for a long time.” Even so, she warns that cancelling elections would remove one of the government’s few advantages over the Taliban: its claim to democratic legitimacy.

Whoever is in charge in Kabul, ordinary Afghans may face more turbulent times. The Taliban have reiterated their demand for a “complete Islamic system”. Even if that did not go as far as the theocratic despotism of their pre-2001 government, it would mark a profound setback to women’s rights and civil liberties, not to mention a shock to the rent-seeking privileges of Afghanistan’s current crop of politicians.

Mr Ghani, or his successor, could dig in his heels, refusing to make concessions. That would run the risk of Mr Trump losing patience and leaving regardless, particularly if no progress had been made by the time of America’s own elections in November 2020. Yet even if an Afghan president were to agree to share power, the Taliban might rip up any pact and press home their advantage once Americans were gone.

A thoughtful deal—one in which American troop reductions would be conditioned on cautious political reform, rather than hasty constitutional upheaval—could reduce the risks of such perfidy. Yet Afghans are not convinced that a thoughtful deal is what they will get. In March, Afghanistan’s national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, raged publicly that “what we’re getting is a deal that doesn’t end in peace”. He accused Mr Khalilzad of maneuvering to become a “viceroy” of a future caretaker regime—an allusion to the common belief that Mr Khalilzad himself somehow seeks to rule the country of his birth.

Even if progress is made on the three core issues—American withdrawal, anti-terrorism guarantees and intra-Afghan talks—that leaves a fourth. Mr Khalilzad has demanded a permanent ceasefire, too. A three-day Eid ceasefire in June 2018 had brought hope that a longer lull in the fighting might be feasible. Few think so now. At least 95 people were injured in a bombing in Kabul on August 7th—the latest in a series of large-scale attacks. There were 3,812 civilian casualties (including 1,366 deaths) in the first half of the year. Though over half of those were inflicted by insurgents, both sides have stepped up the fight: civilian casualties caused by America and government forces, mostly through air strikes and raids, leapt up by 31% on last year.

The Taliban are especially resistant to a hiatus. They control more territory than at any time since the war’s beginning and believe that military momentum is with them. Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces lose at least 50 people a day (America has lost 15 all year). But they also have internal reasons to take a hard line. One Western source briefed on the talks suggests that the Taliban leadership might struggle to sell to its more fervent rank-and-file the notion of only a partial American withdrawal during the early stages of the deal. The most uncompromising Talibs might split with the movement entirely, perhaps joining the Islamic State group.

If all that is not forbidding enough, regional powers might also enter the fray. Pakistan, which backed the Taliban from its earliest days and shelters its leadership, has been vital to nudging them to the negotiating table. Some fear that India’s revocation of autonomy to the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir on August 6th might disrupt the Afghan peace process by stirring Pakistani fears.

In fact, Pakistan has every incentive to keep things going smoothly. A peace deal in Kabul could be a double coup: it might ease Pakistan’s strained relationship with America; and if the Taliban are propelled to power it could also deliver a blow to India, which has built strong economic and security ties to the post-2001 Afghan state. But India is unlikely to sit tight. It might extend support to hardline anti-Taliban factions in Kabul, as it did during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s. Iran, which in recent years has hosted some Taliban leaders and armed other factions to irk America, might get involved to boost its own favoured insurgents in the frenzied jockeying.

That said, Graeme Smith, a consultant with International Crisis Group and a former UN official in Afghanistan, expresses cautious optimism about the diplomatic process. “This is tremendously exciting. Still, it’s a delicate moment: if the diplomats stumble, they could ignite another civil war that engulfs the region”.

(BBG) Trump Struggles to Move Past Bannon With Afghanistan Plan

(BBG) Donald Trump returned to the Oval Office on Monday in danger of becoming increasingly isolated from the Republican establishment he needs to enact his agenda and the grassroots activists inspired by just-departed chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

The president will look to turn the page after a tumultuous working vacation capped by ousting the firebrand Bannon, who many in the White House blamed for the chaos and public infighting that has beset the administration. The move followed the departure of Trump’s first chief of staff, press secretary, and communications director in quick succession.

A week of stinging denouncements from corporate executives, lawmakers and even some conservative activists highlights the challenge Trump faces in rebounding from his roundly criticized response to an Aug. 12 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the death of a counter-protester in a car-ramming incident.

Starting on Monday, when Trump is scheduled to address the nation at 9:00 pm New York time about Afghanistan, the president’s moves will be watched for a sense of whether the presidency, seven months in, can rebound from perhaps its lowest point yet. Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, who favors adding troops to a fight that has become America’s longest-running war, hinted Sunday that Trump may decide to do just that.

A campaign rally Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, less than 200 miles from the Mexican border, will provide a glimpse into whether Trump plans to pivot from the pugilistic approach that’s left him with a shrinking number of allies.

Moral Authority

“As we look to the future it’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, that moral authority remains compromised,’’ Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.’’

Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and regular Trump critic, wrote on Facebook Friday that “I doubt that Donald Trump will be able to calm and comfort the nation’’ after the next national tragedy.

With members of his own party openly criticizing him for his insistence that “both sides’’ were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Trump’s choice of whether to lash out or reach out from this point could be pivotal. Saturday, on Twitter, he seemed for the first time to extend an olive branch to protesters who’ve denounced him.

Back in Washington, the recent firing of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican National Committee, has helped widen a rift with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP lawmakers whom Trump has blamed for not achieving legislative wins on his behalf.

At the same time, Bannon’s exit risks alienating some of Trump’s grassroots supporters.

“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the conservative Weekly Standard on Friday after his White House departure. “We will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over.”

Administration Infighting

The struggle between White House advisers calling for Trump to embrace the role of a more traditional president, and those who have pushed for him to be a force for disruption, has shifted after Bannon — firmly in the latter camp — was removed by Chief of Staff John Kelly.

A senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Kelly has brought more discipline to the West Wing, having an untethered Bannon outside the White House could cause more headaches for the party. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Officials pushing Trump in a more moderate direction, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, will remain in their roles despite public pressure after Trump’s Charlottesville comments equating neo-Nazis to those opposed to the far-right agenda.

Mnuchin Defends Trump

“The president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways,’’ Mnuchin, who is Jewish, said in a statement Saturday that outlined why he planned to continue in his role.

Cohn and Mnuchin will be key players in what’s shaping up as an epic September, with the White House and Congress needing to craft a spending plan and avoid a government shutdown by raising the debt ceiling, while at the same time trying to make progress on Trump’s tax overhaul.

Bannon, who clashed at times with Mnuchin and Cohn, has returned to the conservative website Breitbart, and is pledging to take on establishment Republicans and some of his former colleagues, which could seriously complicate those efforts.

“I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,’’ Bannon said in an interview with Bloomberg after his departure.

Since Bannon’s return to Breitbart, the website has published stories critical of Ivanka Trump — the president’s daughter and senior adviser — and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

The lead story on the website Monday morning had the headline “Source: McMaster Fails to Brief Trump Before ‘That’s Too Bad’ Error.” It referred to Trump’s seemingly flippant comment Sunday about a collision between the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel.

Afghanistan Strategy

Trump’s shift toward more traditional voices in his orbit could be heard Monday when he addresses the nation about Afghanistan. While its unclear what Trump will announce, the position favored by Bannon and others leery of once again ramping up America’s longest war appears to have been marginalized. At the time Bannon’s departure was announced, Trump was huddled with his national security team at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan.

Mattis said Trump engaged in a “rigorous’’ process to come to a decision, and hinted that the decision could include sending more troops.

“I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy,’’ Mattis told reporters on Sunday. “In that regard, the president has made a decision.’’

On Tuesday, Trump travels to Phoenix, Arizona, for a rally — events that tend to be freewheeling and fraught with drama. Trump has criticized both of the state’s Republican senators and has used the campaign-style events to attack opponents with little regard for political norms.

Toxic Relations

On Twitter last week, Trump called Arizona Senator Jeff Flake “toxic’’ and said he was glad to see former state Senator Kelli Ward preparing for a primary challenge in 2018.

Trump has also lashed out recently against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — all at a time when a massive legislative agenda awaits in September, with no time to waste on Twitter wars and other distractions.

The senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Bannon created friction between Trump and congressional Republicans, his ouster might not change much in the relationship.

Former Representative Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who’s now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a government relations consulting firm, said last week’s drama will merely widen the gap between Trump and congressional Republicans.

“The party, it seems to me, is detaching itself from Trump,” he said before Bannon’s ouster. “They’ve got to forge their own way.’’

(BBG) Russia Opens New Front in Rivalry With U.S. With Taliban Support

(BBG) Russia and the U.S. are increasingly sparring over Afghanistan, adding to rapidly souring ties between the Kremlin and President Donald Trump’s administration.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has voiced alarm at Russia’s actions in Afghanistan, where it’s been cultivating links with the Taliban amid a campaign waged by the terrorist group against Afghan and NATO forces.

James Mattis in London on March 31.

Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

His comments come as local Afghan officials and a former Taliban commander say there is evidence Russia is supplying arms to the insurgents. U.S. officials won’t go that far in public, but U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel has told a congressional panel that Russia was probably providing the group with weapons.

Moscow’s support for the Taliban risks adding another front to tensions with Washington after Trump last week ordered a missile strike on an airbase in Syria. The frictions are set to loom large over the meeting of Group of Seven foreign ministers in Italy, after which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to travel to Moscow.

It also highlights the task for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as he struggles to contain the Taliban amid a deteriorating security situation. The Taliban controls or contests over half the country’s populated areas, according to U.S. government estimates, making it harder for America to extract itself from its longest-ever war. Ghani has repeatedly called on the Taliban to join peace talks.

The Kremlin denies arming the group. Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov said in a March 30 interview the accusations were an invention by the Afghan government and its allies to “justify their own failure on the battlefield.”

Still, Russia, loath to allow another permanent U.S. base near its borders, says it supports the Taliban’s demand for foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. And it has accused the U.S. of sabotaging its efforts to help end the conflict by staying away from an April 14 peace initiative in Moscow.

“Russia is actively building contacts to have levers of influence in case the situation enters a crisis phase,” said Petr Topychkanov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “That’s viewed very negatively in the U.S., which is the main sponsor in Afghanistan.”

Trump promised during his election campaign to mend ties with Vladimir Putin. But the relationship quickly deteriorated as the new administration vowed to keep sanctions on Russia imposed over the Ukraine conflict and criticized Moscow’s actions in Syria and Libya.

Chemical Weapons

Russia has denounced the U.S. air strikes on Syria, which the U.S. launched after blaming the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people.

After its 1979 invasion turned into a 10 year war that helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has for years branded the U.S. effort in the central Asian nation a failure. By offering support to its former enemy the Taliban, Russia is seeking to exploit the insurgency and displace American influence.

Officials in Moscow disclosed at the end of last year they’ve been in contact with the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 until being overthrown in the U.S.-led invasion. Russia says it now has common interests with the Taliban because the group is fighting Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly attacks inside Russia.

Rocket Launchers, Cash

Inside Afghanistan, the Russian role is viewed with suspicion. Moscow “must help the Afghan army fight international terrorism instead of helping the Taliban,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri. He could not confirm if Russia is providing aid to the insurgents.

The Taliban receives small arms, rocket launchers, cash and ammunition from Russia via Tajikistan, said Nasruddin Saeedi, district governor of Dasht-e Archi in northern Kunduz province, which shares a porous border with the former Soviet republic.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed denied Russia was giving military support, though he said the group did establish links with Russia about nine months ago.

“Our political office in Qatar held a few low-profile meetings, particularly with Russian ambassadors,” Mujahed said by phone. “The talks took place during international conferences in countries outside Russia.”

‘Many Channels’

Still, former Taliban commander Khan Mohammad Cherik, who recently joined the government’s peace process with 200 of his soldiers, said Russia was providing military and financial help. “Russian weapons were brought to us through many channels in the last one-to-two years,” he said by phone.

While there is no proof of weapons being provided, “we have seen Russian activity vis-à-vis the Taliban,’’ Mattis said at a briefing in London on March 31. “What they’re up to there in light of their other activities gives us concern.”

Around 13,000 U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan and the top U.S. commander is pushing for several thousand more. The U.S. estimates that only 57 percent of Afghanistan is under government control, a 15 percent decrease since November 2015.

Russia, which until 2015 had offered support to U.S.-led forces fighting the Taliban by letting military equipment transit its territory, has “practically cut itself off from the coalition,” said Omar Nessar, head of the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies.

Further challenging American leadership, Russia invited China, India, Pakistan and Iran, plus five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, the U.S. and Afghanistan to the April 14 meeting which it says can pave the way for talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. Moscow has said it is willing to host such a meeting.

The risk is Russia’s support of the Taliban “will backfire and help embolden extremist groups whose ultimate objective is to subjugate Afghanistan and then pose a risk to neighboring countries,’’ said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. “Russia is misjudging the situation by bypassing Kabul and trying to sideline Washington.”