New U.S. push for peace in Afghanistan exposing widening fault lines: Report

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NEW YORK: The United States’ new push for a political settlement to end two decades of conflict in Afghanistan is “exposing widening fault lines” in the Kabul government, with President Ashraf Ghani spokespersons opposing the proposal while his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, welcomed it, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

In a report from Doha, the venue of now stalled talks between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban, the newspaper said that even the two parties within the government “were not signaling moves towards consensus”.

The new approach — nicknamed “moonshot” by some U.S. officials referring to its lofty ambitions — is an attempt to reach a peace deal within weeks by applying unprecedented pressure to negotiating teams on both sides of the conflict, the Taliban and the Kabul government, it said.

The former Trump administration’s focus was on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, it was pointed out. The Biden team is applying “greater” pressure on the diplomatic front. As already reported, U.S.-Afghanistan policy is under review, and the U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was on a regional tour last month to spearhead the new approach.

The Post quoted unnamed Afghan officials warning that the campaign could backfire, by deadlocking talks, undermining the elected government and plunging the country deeper into violence.

The Afghan officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with journalists, the report said. The Afghan officials, it said, acknowledged that current levels of violence and the political stalemate in Doha are unacceptable, but disagreed with the Biden administration’s attempted reset.

A spokesman for Ghani’s office rejected the suggestion that the president is under greater pressure now from Washington to reach a peace deal. “If there is any pressure that we feel, it is the pressure from the Afghan people who have been terrorized” since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Fatima Murchal, Ghani’s deputy spokesperson, was quoted as saying.

Taliban representatives in Doha also dismissed the implication that the change in approach would have an effect on the deadlocked talks.

“Pressure from the United States never works,” Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, was cited as saying. “We know this because they have already tried all forms of pressure for 20 years.”

Naeem said the group does not expect the United States to walk away from the 2020 deal, but if it does, “there will be problems, and they will be responsible for that.”
Meanwhile, the spokesman for Abdullah, the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, called the new U.S. proposal a “positive starting point to boost the peace process and the peace talks.”

Abdullah and other political rivals of Ghani’s government have the most to gain from the establishment of an interim government, one of the U.S. draft’s key elements.
“We do not consider the proposal a setback or a step to destabilize the country. Rather, it is a step forward,” Spokesman Mujib Rahman Rahimi was quoted as saying.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, who was also interviewed, supported the new approach from the United States, but warned that some of the specifics outlined in the U.S. draft peace deal — such as detailing the structure of the interim government — were a potential “distraction” that “could make matters more complicated.”

Afghanistan is mired in one of the deadliest conflicts in the world. Last year, violence killed more than 3,000 civilians and wounded nearly 5,800, according to a United Nations annual report. Those numbers represented a drop in overall civilian casualties compared with the year prior, but U.N. data showed that, as the year wore on, deaths began reaching record levels.

“Ask anyone, and they will tell you a story about losing a son or a husband or a father,” Ihsanullah Sediq, a peace activist in Ghazni province, one of the country’s most volatile, was quoted as saying. Sediq, also a member of a conservative, religious Afghan political party, said, “From a humanitarian view, it’s not acceptable for this war to continue.”

“The only way to find an end to this war is to create a new political environment, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “And it must come with international pressure. Because without it, the leaders in Kabul will not tolerate each other for even just a single week.”

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