KABUL — The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan is in Kabul discussing a possible prisoner exchange to free two Western hostages held by the Taliban since 2016, according to an Afghan official. The move follows U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s visit earlier this week to Pakistan, where he was seeking ways to revive peace talks with the Taliban nearly two months after they were upended by President Trump.
Khalilzad is attempting to secure the release of American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University of Afghanistan before they were seized at gunpoint in Kabul. The two professors could be freed in exchange for several Taliban commanders, including Anas Haqqani, a son of the founder of the Haqqani network, according to the Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
It is unclear whether Trump supports the resumption of talks with the Taliban. Trump has repeatedly pledged to bring American troops home from “endless wars” abroad, and in October he authorized a hurried drawdown of U.S. forces from Syria.
Although Trump declared peace talks with the Taliban “dead” in early September, informal “discussions” focused on identifying confidence-building measures have continued behind the scenes, according to a senior Taliban official. The Taliban official spoke by phone from an undisclosed location on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide information to the media.
Other Afghan officials have suggested that a reduction in violence is necessary before peace talks can continue. The conflict in Afghanistan has escalated in recent months, and civilian casualties have reached record levels. So far this year, more than 8,000 civilians have been killed or injured, according to the United Nations.
On Monday, Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan president’s national security adviser, said the Afghan government is now demanding a cease-fire before any peace talks with the Taliban. The announcement marks a sharp departure from the government’s previous position of openness to direct talks without preconditions.
The Taliban official dismissed the possibility of agreeing to a cease-fire before reaching a peace deal, explaining that the insurgents believe that more attacks on American and Afghan troops could strengthen their hand.
The Taliban has long refused to meet directly with the Afghan government even without preconditions, as the insurgents view Afghan President Asraf Ghani’s government as a puppet of the United States.
In Pakistan, Khalilzad met with Prime Minister Imran Khan and held talks with the country’s powerful military chief earlier this week. In early October, Khalilzad met with Taliban leaders in Pakistan.
Khalilzad’s Kabul visit comes amid continuing political uncertainty in Afghanistan, where the results from the country’s recent presidential election remain in limbo. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has delayed the announcement of the results until mid-November. Afghans voted Sept. 28 in polls that had been repeatedly delayed by security concerns.
Khalilzad and Taliban negotiators appeared to be days away from announcing a deal before the effort was halted by a tweet from Trump. The deal included an agreement on the withdrawal of most American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a pledge from the Taliban that it would not harbor terrorist groups. It is not clear whether further talks would pick up where the negotiators left off or begin the process from scratch.
The last time the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed to a cease-fire was in June 2018, the first since the conflict began. The truce, initially declared by Ghani’s government, was part of an urgent bid for peace with the Taliban when the group’s battlefield strength was on the rise. Both sides have been unable to agree to another cease-fire since.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
Casualties increase among Afghan security forces as war intensifies
KABUL — As Afghanistan’s conflict intensifies, casualties among the country’s security forces are continuing to increase, a troubling sign while American and Taliban negotiators look to revive talks toward a peace deal likely to include a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
Casualties among Afghan security forces increased by 5 percent from June through August this year compared with the same period last year, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s quarterly report, which was released Thursday.
Afghanistan’s military has struggled with high casualty rates for years. Last year, the Pentagon described casualties among Afghan security forces as “unsustainable.”
The government does not release the exact number, but in late 2018, President Ashraf Ghani said that more than 28,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed since 2015.
The persistent high casualties among Afghan security forces come as American and Taliban negotiators look to resuscitate peace talks that were upended by President Trump in September. A key element of any peace deal is expected to be a withdrawal of U.S. forces, a move that would significantly increase pressure on Afghanistan’s military.
Earlier in October, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan announced that it has already begun reducing personnel, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in the country to about 13,000. A spokesman for the command described the decrease as “an aggregate drop” and not part of a larger drawdown.
Over the past year, the push for peace has brought with it a spike in violence in Afghanistan as both the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban have looked to gain negotiating leverage through battlefield gains.
Those increased operations were also detailed in the watchdog report. The number of ground operations conducted by Afghan special operations forces is up. Those forces conducted 2,531 ground operations from January to September, outpacing the total number of operations carried out in 2018. And airstrikes have intensified: U.S. aircraft dropped more munitions on Afghanistan in September than in any other month since October 2010.
The Afghan military also experienced an increase in casualties caused by “insider” attacks. From June through August this year, attacks on Afghan security forces carried out by their comrades resulted in 87 casualties. So far this year, 49 “insider” attacks have resulted in 167 casualties.
The United States has spent more than $70 billion training and equipping the Afghan military over the course of the country’s 18-year war, according to the government watchdog.
U.S. envoy in Kabul to discuss prisoner exchange; Casualties increase among Afghan security forces