The Pulse

In Afghanistan, Talking and Killing Continue in Tandem

The next Doha meeting, which the Afghan government plans to attend, has been pushed back. Meanwhile, attacks continue.

Catherine Putz
In Afghanistan, Talking and Killing Continue in Tandem
Credit: Sgt. Christian Palermo

The talking continues and so does the killing; the war in Afghanistan stumbles onward toward its 18th year.

A recent Associated Press lede says it all: “A top Afghan official says he supports U.S. efforts to pursue a cease-fire with the Taliban, who effectively control half of Afghanistan and refuse to negotiate with his government.”

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, speaking to the AP in Jordan where he was attending the World Economic Forum, suggested on Sunday that the Taliban could participate in elections, even contest the presidency, if they renounced violence.

Afghanistan’s presidential elections were delayed in December 2018 from April to July 2019, and then in March 2019 pushed back even further to September 28, 2019.

The day after Abdullah’s comments, three U.S. Marines were killed in a roadside bombing near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. base in the country and located a mere 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north of Kabul. The Taliban claimed the attack, though they offered a conflicting version, saying that a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near the base.

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At last estimate, as recorded in the January quarterly report to the U.S. Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Afghan government controls or influences only 53.8 percent of the country’s districts; meanwhile 33.9 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are contested, meaning they’re judged to be neither controlled or influenced by either the Afghan government or insurgents.

On Monday night in southern Kandahar near the Pakistani border, Taliban reportedly stormed a checkpoint and killed 20 Afghan troops. The Taliban claimed the attack and a spokesman said the group’s fighters had seized weapons and ammunition.

All the while, the various parties are preparing for another meeting in Qatar.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy working on settling some kind of deal with the Taliban, on April 7 tweeted about an “important meeting” he’d held that day with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Khalilzad is a controversial figure in Afghanistan, a reality that flashed brightly recently, sparked by disparaging comments from Hamdullah Mohib, Ghani’s national security adviser. Mohib’s name is now reportedly mud in Washington, but his name nevertheless appears on a list of proposed members for a new Reconciliation Council.

Khalilzad, in a statement, mentioned that “representatives of the Afghan government and wider society will participate” in an upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha. The Qatar meeting, initially scheduled for April 14, has reportedly been postponed to April 19.

The Taliban have, so far, refused to hold official, direct talks with the Afghan government, which the group continues to refer to as an American “puppet.” An April 7 statement from the Taliban noted that those attending the upcoming talks from the Afghan government would be participating “in a personal capacity” and not representing the government. The statement also noted that there would not be peace negotiations but an exchange of views. This may all read like linguistic gymnastics but the underlying sentiment remains clear: The Taliban does not recognize the Afghan government as legitimate.

It’s worth noting that Khalilzad’s April 7 statement also stated that he “underscored the imperative of reducing violence across Afghanistan in the coming weeks…” But it’s unclear, judging from the consistent pace of attacks across Afghanistan throughout this negotiation process, that the Taliban are willing to (or frankly, even able to) temper the violence.