The Taliban are not ready to attend the proposed peace conference in Turkey, which had been tentatively scheduled for April 16. The United States has held out making an official call on whether it would withdrawal as of May 1, arguably in hopes of negotiating for an extension that would give the Biden administration breathing room and the intra-Afghan peace process more time. The Taliban have maintained a firm line on the agreement’s timeline and continued attacks on Afghan forces.
According to the Associated Press and other outlets, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said that the group was not ready to attend the conference both the United States and the Afghan government had hoped to start later this week. He said the group was still discussing the U.S.-proffered peace agreement, referring to a proposal from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this year.
First mentioned in a letter leaked last month, Blinken dispatched U.S. Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to shop around a draft plan for Afghan peace. The draft covered “guiding principles for Afghanistan’s future,” the structure of a transitional government — a “Peace Government of Afghanistan” — and a roadmap for a “lasting ceasefire.”
As reported by TOLO News, a former Taliban commander, Sayed Akbar Agha, said, “The Taliban has said that things will not move forward unless the issue of withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan is made clear, therefore, I think that the Turkey conference will not be held unless these issues are made clear.”
The Biden administration has deliberately avoided making an official call on the May 1 deadline. Various officials have stressed the logistical difficulty and associated risks of trying to meet it. But Biden has also said he “can’t picture” U.S. troops still in Afghanistan by 2022. Reports indicate that the administration has been seeking to negotiate for as much as a six month extension on the May 1 deadline with the Taliban, in hopes of not making a haphazard dash for the door or giving room for accusations that Washington can’t keep its promises.
The May 1 deadline comes from the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban. The Taliban have been accused of violating their commitments as outlined in the deal — including continued cooperation with al-Qaida — just as the Taliban have accused the United States of violating its end of the deal, too. One has to wonder what good the deal is if both sides believe the other has violated it.
It seems most likely that the United States will stay in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline. The Taliban, of course, will rage that such an extension is a violation of the agreement and may, as a result, resume attacks against U.S. and NATO forces, which it had largely ceased since the February 2020 deal. The alternative isn’t necessarily better: A rapid withdrawal comes with serious risks and may necessitate the abandoning of expensive and lethal equipment Washington would rather not leave behind as the Taliban faces off with the Afghan government and the Afghan political sphere, never cohesive, splinters further.
Update: Shortly after this piece was published, the Washington Post published an article claiming that U.S. President Joe Biden was preparing to announce this week that U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.