Afghanistan Is Ready for Major U.S. Troop Reduction, Ghani Says

By Rebecca Blumenstein and 

The New York Times

The Afghan leader said he had told President Trump that the United States could withdraw a third of its troops, even as a peace deal with Taliban remains elusive.

American military personnel in Helmand, Afghanistan, last September. About 12,000 United States troops remain in the country.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

DAVOS, Switzerland — Afghanistan is prepared for a major reduction in United States forces there, President Ashraf Ghani said on Thursday, adding that he had given that message to President Trump, a step toward winding down the costly American military presence as diplomats struggle to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban.

About 12,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 eight years ago. The eventual withdrawal of those forces has been one of the strongest pieces of leverage American negotiators have in talks with the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

A gradual reduction in United States troops in the country has taken place over the last year, despite the absence of a settlement emerging from peace negotiations in the Gulf state of Qatar over the past year. Mr. Trump declared the talks “dead” in September, just as the two sides were on the verge of finalizing an agreement. They later resumed, but have since stalled.

Mr. Ghani has been a vocal critic of the United States’ negotiations with the insurgents, because the talks have excluded his government. But speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, he said he had told Mr. Trump that the Afghan government was ready for a further reduction of 4,000 American troops, one-third of those remaining.

An official close to Mr. Ghani said his stance was in keeping with the Afghan government’s longstanding efforts to offer cost savings to an American president who complains about the price of deployments overseas. In return, Mr. Ghani hopes the United States will reconsider what he sees as a rushed deal that legitimizes the Taliban and leaves the Washington-backed government to fend for itself.

“We are totally ready for a withdrawal of 4,000 troops anytime the president decides,” Mr. Ghani told reporters at the economic gathering, a day after he met with Mr. Trump.

American negotiators have been in Qatar for the past several weeks, trying to kickstart the stalled peace process.

In exchange for returning to the pact that they were close to approving in September, they have demanded that the Taliban agree to significantly reduce violence before the deal is signed. The signing of the American-Taliban deal would open the way for negotiations between the insurgents and other Afghans, including Mr. Ghani’s government, over power-sharing.

President Trump and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan at an address to American troops in Kabul in November.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

In recent weeks, the Taliban came to the negotiating table with an offer of a brief period of “violence reduction,” a vague term that officials say could amount to holding back attacks on major cities and highways.

As American diplomats evaluate that offer, Mr. Trump seems to have toned down his earlier demand, aligning it with his negotiators’ position. An official summary of his Wednesday meeting with Mr. Ghani made no mention of a cease-fire, instead citing “the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence by the Taliban.”

But Mr. Ghani’s government has insisted on pushing the Taliban for nothing short of a cease-fire to show that the insurgents are genuine about peace and negotiating a shared political future, saying that a “reduction of violence” is meaningless.

“It’s like pregnancy,” Mr. Ghani said. “We really can’t be half pregnant.”

In another sign that significant differences remain between the Afghan government and the White House over the peace process, a close adviser to Mr. Ghani lashed out at the Taliban on Thursday and said that “foreigners” would not be able to impose a deal on the Afghan people.

Speaking at the Kabul-based Institute of War and Peace Studies on Thursday, Amrullah Saleh, Mr. Ghani’s running mate in a recent election whose result is being disputed, said that Taliban violence had predated the United States invasion in 2001, and expressed concern that a deal between Americans and the insurgents might not mean an end to the fighting.

“It is possible that the U.S. and Taliban negotiations in Doha might end the war between the U.S. and the Taliban, but it is impossible for those negotiations to end the Taliban’s war with the Afghan nation,” Mr. Saleh said.

In a response that signaled how fraught any direct talks between the Afghan government and insurgents would be, a former Taliban minister alluded to the barbarity that predated the Taliban government of the 1990s.

He said the Taliban had arisen to end the anarchy and violence created when several armed factions fought to fill a power vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal.

Agha Jan Motasim, who was finance minister during the Taliban government, said all sides of the 40-year conflict, including the Taliban, had made mistakes. Reaching a peace agreement required looking beyond past grievances and thoughts of revenge, he said.

“If we repeat the Taliban’s wrongdoings and not mention their good,” Mr. Motasim said, “we will just be fanning the flames.”

Rebecca Blumenstein reported from Davos, Switzerland, and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Is Ready for Major U.S. Troop Reduction, Ghani Says
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Taliban Offer to Reduce Violence in Afghanistan Ahead of Deal With U.S.

By Mujib Mashal and 

Jan. 16, 2020

Afghan forces in September in an area then recently retaken from the Taliban in Badakhshan Province.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have offered a brief period of reducing violence in Afghanistan during ongoing negotiations with United States diplomats, three officials familiar with the talks said on Thursday, a concession seen as important to finalizing a preliminary peace deal between the insurgents and the United States to end their 18-year war.

If the American side accepts the offer, it could amount to the most significant development in the yearlong negotiations since talks resumed after President Trump had scuttled the peace process on the eve of a deal in September.

Though the pledge to reduce violence falls short of the overarching long-term cease-fire sought by the Afghan government, Western diplomats had said getting the Taliban to agree to more than a modest reduction in attacks would be difficult before the withdrawal of foreign forces gets underway.

Details of the offer, confirmed by Western and Taliban officials familiar with the negotiations, were unclear, though the Taliban have said in the past that a reduction in violence would mean scaling back attacks on major cities and highways.

Also unclear was the duration of any reduction — though one Taliban official suggested it was between seven and 10 days — and whether the American side had agreed to the Taliban proposal, which was made on Wednesday.

But the offer appears to have put the talks in Doha into a new phase. Soon after midnight, the Taliban negotiating team’s spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said the two negotiating teams had talked about details of “the signing of the agreement and the ceremony for it.”

“The talks will continue for the coming days,” Mr. Shaheen said on Twitter.

In another sign that a deal could be closer, the top commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, joined the American negotiating team in Doha, officials said.

The issue of whether to agree to a cease-fire before the departure of the roughly 13,000 American forces and thousands more NATO troops has been an existential one for the Taliban, who see violence as their most important leverage. The insurgents spent more than a month deliberating Washington’s demand.

American military personnel in a helicopter flying over Helmand Province in September.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Members of the Taliban negotiating team repeatedly traveled from Doha, Qatar, where the talks are taking place, to consult with the group’s leaders and commanders in Pakistan, where they enjoy havens. In the end, they came back to the Americans with a proposal of reducing violence for a brief period.

Some officials suggested the arrangement could essentially amount to a cease-fire — in which no attacks are carried out — without explicitly using the term, which some Taliban leaders believe would divide their ranks.

In the past, the Taliban have refused to talk with the Afghan government, calling it an American puppet. But in September, before Mr. Trump scuttled a nearly signed peace deal, a round of negotiations that was to include some members of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration had been planned in Oslo for soon after the signing of a deal between the Taliban and the United States.

The Afghan government still seemed to be pushing for an extensive cease-fire. Hamdullah Mohib, the national security adviser, said at a conference in New Delhi on Wednesday that Afghan leaders saw a cease-fire as a sign of the Taliban’s seriousness for genuine peace, and that the group — which the government has long seen as a proxy of the Pakistani military — can deliver on what they sign.

Firefighters and city workers near a crater left by a car bomb outside a fortified compound in Kabul in September. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“Peace for our people means the end of violence,” Mr. Mohib said. “This is why we insist that a cease-fire is necessary to create a conducive environment for talks.”

A cease-fire, he added, “will prove to the Afghan people and government that our enemies are not only serious about peace, but that it is within their control to maintain their part of a future deal.”

Mr. Trump’s scuttling of the talks threw into confusion American policy on Afghanistan, and raised fears that Mr. Trump, long public about his weariness with the war, might pull troops from the country even without a deal. But it also provided a window of reflection over a peace process that many saw as too rushed.

Afghan leaders, which had worried that their American allies were selling them out, saw an opportunity for course correction and urged a complete reset that emphasized a cease-fire as a condition for any resumption of talks.

The Taliban used the break to bridge divides in their own ranks, most notably the suspicions of many in the military over any deal. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy leading the talks, traveled to Pakistan and held several large meetings, some with as many as 300 senior and midlevel commanders and officials, to bring them onboard with what he said was the best deal he could negotiate.

President Trump with his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, during a bilateral meeting at Bagram Air Field in Kabul in November.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

About a month into the lull, American diplomats, led by the chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, began quietly looking at trust-building measures that could put the negotiations back on track. That included releasing several senior Taliban leaders from prison, a move officials hope Taliban negotiators can use to prod their own military to agree to reduce violence.

During his first visit to Afghanistan in November, Mr. Trump announced the resumption of negotiations. He said the Taliban were interested in a cease-fire. His remarks, which seemed to echo the Afghan government’s desire, appeared to catch both the militants and his own officials off guard. But both sides returned to the table in hope of finding ways to significantly reduce the bloodshed so the deal could move forward.

Mujib Mashal reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Washington.

Taliban Offer to Reduce Violence in Afghanistan Ahead of Deal With U.S.
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‘Devastating Toll’ on Afghan Civilians in 2019: HRW

 
15 January 2020

The HRW report said that civilian deaths caused by the Afghan government and US operations exceeded the Taliban’s for the first time.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday in its World Report 2020 said that attacks by all parties to Afghanistan’s armed conflict in  2019 took a “devastating toll” on civilians.

The report said that for the first time the deaths caused by the Afghan government and United States operations exceeded those caused by the Taliban in the first half of 2019, largely due to a sharp increase in US airstrikes.

“The Taliban carried out indiscriminate attacks, particularly before the September presidential elections, that killed and injured hundreds of civilians,” the report said.

“As fighting has dragged on, all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan have shown a blatant disregard for the laws of war and have caused appalling civilian harm,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW.

“However, peace talks play out in 2020, the lives of ordinary Afghans will depend on the warring parties making a commitment to protect civilians and uphold human rights,” the report said.

In the 652-page World Report  2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries.

Throughout  2019, Afghan women’s rights groups and other activists called for broad representation of Afghans in the talks with the Taliban, and for preserving human rights protections, including constitutional guarantees on women’s equality, according to the report.

Afghan special forces supported by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out “summary executions and enforced disappearances” during so-called night raids, according to the report.

The report cites an August 12 incident where a special forces unit known as “02,” which has CIA support, “summarily executed 11 men,” mostly members of one extended family, in a night raid in Zurmat district, Nangarhar.

The report stated that the Taliban also carried out “summary executions, torture, and ill-treatment, including forced labor of prisoners.”

HRW listed the Taliban’s targeting of civilians, including Abdul Samad Amiri, acting head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s office in Ghor province, who was abducted on September 3 together with a government employee. On September 5, the bodies of both men were found in the Jalrez district of Maidan Wardak province, an area under Taliban control.

The report claims the Afghan government made progress in reducing torture in some detention facilities but failed to hold security force members and prominent political figures accountable for abuses, including sexual assault.

‘Devastating Toll’ on Afghan Civilians in 2019: HRW
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Ceasefire Necessary for Talks: Mohib

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser, on Wednesday at the Raisina Dialogue multilateral conference in New Delhi, said that “Peace for our people means the end of violence – this is why we insist that a ceasefire is necessary to create a conducive environment for talks.”

“First and most importantly, peace in our land is long overdue. People still long to see a day where they can send their children to school and visit friends without the persistent fear that they might be the target of terrorism,” said Mohib.

He also said that a ceasefire is a catalyst for sustainable peace because the Afghan people earnestly want it, and it will prove to the Afghan people and government that “our enemies are not only serious about peace, but that it is within their control to maintain their part of a future deal.”

Mohib said that President Ghani has urged neighbors and partners to seek peaceful resolution to violent circumstances – not just because Afghanistan’s own national interests require it, but because these principles are enshrined in the UN Charter and they have been the basis of international cooperation for generations.

“We have learned a lot as a nation over the past four decades about what there is to lose from disorder. We did not do so well in learning how to gain from it,” according to Mohib.

He mentioned that over the past 40 years of conflict, Afghanistan was never able to become “antifragile.”

“We were never able to grow from disorder—we only sunk deeper into it. We were never able to overcome the influence of regional and global powers who sought to use our people and our geographical platform to further their own agendas; we were never able to harness the strength of our own diversity; we were never able to take advantage of our geopolitical positioning in this world, turning it into a blessing rather than a curse,” he added.

He believes that things have been changing over the past years, for the better.

“Those of us who were born into war and displacement, and who have come of age as new returnees to the homeland we were forced to leave, see things differently,” he said, “We are not jaded about Afghanistan’s ability to tap its economic potential and thrive; we are not placing bets on the viability of our political structures.”

We are determined to create opportunity from the midst of uncertainty, and move forward and progress, no matter how cluttered the path forward may be with obstacles of threats and risks.

Let the progress of our security forces be a call to those fighting to subvert our democracy and undermine our institutions: The Afghan people and government stand ready to engage in peace talks. But if you refuse to answer this call, prepare to face the full force of the Afghan nation, he said.

The Taliban leaders have held internal discussions over the reduction of violence over the past month.

The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is expected to meet Afghan leaders in Kabul once the Taliban finalize their position on the reduction of violence, according to a source close to the process.

Ceasefire Necessary for Talks: Mohib
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Afghan Govt Insists on Pre-Talks Ceasefire

 

Tolo News

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Presidential Palace, on Monday said that the Taliban “must” accept a ceasefire ahead of any peace talks, adding that “without a ceasefire, there would be no peace talks.”

“Without a ceasefire, we will not reach a long-lasting peace, a peace with dignity. And a reduction of violence is not practical,” said Sediqqi.

But the Taliban have prepared a plan for the reduction of violence and “are not ready to announce any ceasefire before the peace talks with the Afghan government,” said a source close to the peace talks.

Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a university professor, said: “They (the Taliban) say that issues around a ceasefire will be at the top of the agenda of intra-Afghan negotiations.”

The government is insisting on a ceasefire but if the Taliban does not accept it, what will be the outcome?

Presumably referring to the new demand of the Afghan government, Haji Din Mohammad, the head of the Peace and Development Party, said: “A ceasefire should not be used as an excuse to challenge peace or continue the bloodshed in the country.”

NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative for Afghanistan Nicholas Kay said he feels “optimistic” and hopes that the peace talks between the US and Taliban will move forward and pave the way for intra-Afghan talks. He said he thinks a “strong regional consensus has been building over the last year” for support of the peace process, and that “security forces are stronger than they have been before.”

A source with knowledge of the peace talks said that the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been in Qatar over the past week and has held an informal meeting with the Taliban deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar. The source added that Khalilzad will visit Kabul soon to share the Taliban’s plan for the reduction of violence with Afghan government leaders.

Afghan Govt Insists on Pre-Talks Ceasefire
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U.S. troops slain and injured, journalist killed, in Afghanistan

By Jay Jackson, Afghanistan News.Net
12 Jan 2020, 05:50 GMT+10

 

KABUL, Afghanistan – Two U.S. soldiers were killed, and another 2 wounded, when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the southern part of Afghanistan on Saturday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

In compliance with its policy, the U.S. Department of Defense withheld the names of those killed and injured, while next-of-kin are being notified.

Qari Yusouf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman confirmed his group had planted the explosive device.

Unlike with Iran, which has paid a heavy price following the alleged killing of a U.S. private contractor by a pro-Iranian militia group, there will unlikely be any retaliation against the Taliban which is involved in peace talks with U.S.

Ahmadi said the attack had occurred in the Kandahar province. An Afghan military official said it was in the Dand district, which is part of the Kandahar province.

A Nato spokesman on Saturday said officials were still “assessing the situation and will provide more information as it became available.”

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Aghanistan in late 2001, more than 2,400 U.S. service members have died in hostilities, most of them as a result of roadside bombs.

The attack comes as U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to finalise a ceasefire. The Taliban has agreed to a truce subject to the United States committing to withdraw its troops. The two partties are believed to be close to an agreement.

Reporters Without Borders, Reporters Sans Frontires (RSF) meantime has condemned the killing of a journalist by Taliban militants in the Western Farah province of Afghanistan.

The local journalist, Javid Noori, 27, (pictured) was reportedly singled out by the Taliban militants after several people were abducted on a highway in Farah province last Sunday and was later executed.

Noori, who worked for the Farah regional government and Radio Neshat, was travelling on a bus with around 30 other passengers when it was stopped and searched at a Taliban roadblock, RSF said in a statement.

The Taliban shot and killed him after finishing their search, RSF said.

“He was killed after being checked and then moved to one side,” RSF said quoting a witness to the slaying. The Taliban later issued a formal statement announcing “the execution of an enemy officer during a control.”

“This summary execution is the first death of a journalist in 2019 to be registered on RSF’s barometer,” Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Afghanistan-Iran desk said. “There is an urgent need to end such practices. We reiterate our appeal to the international community to condition the start of any talks with the Taliban on their giving an explicit undertaking to respect international humanitarian law’s basic treaties, starting with the Geneva Conventions.”

“The world’s deadliest country for the media in 2018, with a total of 15 journalists killed, Afghanistan is ranked 118th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index,” the statement added.

Another two journalists were killed this week in another country invaded by the U.S. – Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis on Saturday mourned the pair who were shot dead on Friday night in the country’s southern city of Basra, where they had been covering the anti-government protests.

Ahmad Abdessamad, a 37-year-old correspondent for local television station Al-Dijla, and his cameraman Safaa Ghali, 26, were killed late Friday, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) said Saturday.

Hundreds marched through the streets of Basra carrying symbolic coffins, their pictures and Iraqi flags.

One mourner said: “What happened was an attempt to scare people. But now, everyone in Basra has come out to mourn Ahmad and his colleague Safaa. It was clearly an attempt to silence people.”

The two reporters were in a car near a police station in Basra when armed men in a SUV confronted them and opened fire.

“Armed men attacked them and sprayed them with bullets on Friday night, which killed Abdessamad. His cameraman was taken to the city hospital, where he died,” the JFO said in a statement.

It said that two weeks before he died, Abdessamad had sent the JFO video testimony about “threats he received from militias because of his criticism of Iran in his coverage.”

U.S. troops slain and injured, journalist killed, in Afghanistan
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As Iran and U.S. Trade Blows, Afghanistan Sweats Between the 2 Powers

By 

The New York Times

Afghan officials fear that an escalation between Iran and the United States could hurt chances for peace with the Taliban during a critical time.

President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in December. The country borders Iran and also hosts thousands of American military personnel. 
Credit…Afghan Presidential Palace, via Reuters

In the days after a United States drone strike killed Iran’s top intelligence and military operative, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan scrambled to keep his country out of a cycle of escalation between the two powers.

Now that Iranian missiles have come into play, some of the particular vulnerabilities of Afghanistan, which lies along Iran’s northeastern border and still hosts about 13,000 American military personnel on a network of bases, are on display.

“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan assures the people and its neighbors that, according to the security agreement with the United States, the territory of Afghanistan in no circumstances will be used against another country,” Mr. Ghani said in one statement. His aides say he reiterated that message in calls with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

The Afghan leader’s concerns arise from the fact that President Trump in recent days warned that Iranian retaliation for the drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani would be met by heavy force. Two United States military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, said the American air assets in Afghanistan have repeatedly come up in discussions over potential responses to Iran, though the top United States commander in Afghanistan has urged caution about such plans.

Along with a border, Afghanistan shares complicated and extensive political, cultural and economic ties with Iran.

Throughout decades of war and upheaval, millions of Afghan refugees fled to Iran, where a large Afghan population remains.

Even during 18 years of a United States presence in Afghanistan, which Iran sees as a threat to its security, the Iranian government has largely taken a pragmatic approach.

It is very engaged with the American-backed Afghan government, and has been a source of some economic support — and, covertly, of bags of cash to influential Afghans — even when its own economy has ailed. But it has also maintained communications with some cells of the Taliban insurgency, betting that the Taliban will outlast the American military presence.

The depth of Iran’s importance to Afghanistan was made clear in the public reaction of some of Afghanistan’s most influential political leaders after the killing of General Suleimani, a hardened security operator who spoke with many Afghan officials over the years and who sent thousands of Afghan refugees to fight on Iran’s side in the war in Syria.

Even Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the current United States-brokered government, went to the Iranian Embassy to pay his condolences and sign a memorial book laid out for General Suleimani, officials said.

Richard Olson, a former United States special envoy to Afghanistan, said that despite the high number of potential American military targets in Afghanistan, Iran would be more likely to strike elsewhere — possibly Iraq, Syria or Lebanon, where Iran has tighter control over proxy forces.

American military personnel in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in September.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Instead, any American reaction launched from Afghan soil might put more pressure on Afghan officials than any demands by Iran, Mr. Olson said.

“If we get into a prolonged, low-intensity conflict with Iran — which I think is likely, unfortunately — then the U.S. may get to thinking that we are going to need to stay in Afghanistan and maintain a relatively robust military presence to threaten Iran from the rear,” he said.

“If we reach that decision,” he added, “then I think that pretty much means the end of the peace process in Afghanistan.

Mr. Olson was referring to renewed talks between the United States and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, aimed at negotiating an American military withdrawal and the eventual opening of direct talks between the Afghan government and the insurgency.

Two Western diplomats aware of the peace process said that the United States’ strike against Iran, and Iran’s retaliation in Iraq, will surely slow down the talks, as the Taliban try to grapple with what this means for their insurgency.

While some analysts believe that the elements of the Taliban close to Iran will now feel pressured to deliver on Iran’s behalf, the diplomats said they hoped the Taliban would try to avoid being dragged deeper into another conflict at a time when they were so close to a deal.

During the upheaval of the 1990s, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the Shiite theocracy in Iran saw the group as an enemy force that oppressed Afghan Shiites and was hostile to Iran.

But while the United States was spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan, and cycling nearly a million American troops through in the 18 years of war, Iran changed its policy, deciding to nurture the Taliban when it was useful. General Suleimani was central to that effort, according to United States and Afghan officials, which has given Iran a hedge against the United States in Afghanistan at very little cost.

Those officials say that in some cases, Iran has simply given Taliban leaders and their family members a refuge from American and Afghan forces, hosting them in Iran. One Afghan official said that General Suleimani made a point of allowing the smuggling networks that help finance the Taliban to pass unimpeded through Iran.

In other cases, Iranian support for the insurgency has been more significant. Afghan and Western officials say they know of Taliban offices in several Iranian cities. And the Taliban’s former supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, had started making trips to Iran from his base in Pakistan. He was returning from one of those trips when a United States drone strike killed him in 2016.

With many of the Afghan leaders, General Suleimani had a history that reached back decades.

General Suleimani had a high profile within Afghanistan, and visiting Afghan officials often met with him in Iran.

American officials, too, were keenly aware of General Suleimani’s interest, as some of the generals who have come to Afghanistan to lead had at other times crossed swords with General Suleimani elsewhere.

Before taking command in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller was in charge of the joint special operations command leading missions in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. General Miller’s predecessor in that role had described General Suleimani as his “peer competitor.”

Gen. Austin S. Miller, second right, commander of the American and NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, in Helmand in September.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

But if things continue to escalate between the United States and Iran, Afghan and American officials fear that more active Iranian intervention could change the battlefield in Afghanistan.

One major concern is whether Iran might now begin providing more sophisticated weaponry to the Taliban — particularly the kind of portable antiaircraft missiles that over 18 years of fighting had not been a factor that American and Afghan officials had to face in fighting the insurgency.

After the killing of General Suleimani, a former Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, said on Twitter that it would be “no surprise” if such missile technology made its way into Taliban hands if a peace deal were to fall through.

But diplomats suggest the Taliban might be too rational to be dragged into such an escalation on the verge of a peace deal with the United States — unless they conclude that the United States is not leaving Afghanistan and needs to be forced out.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Washington.

As Iran and U.S. Trade Blows, Afghanistan Sweats Between the 2 Powers
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Taliban: We Don’t Want to be Sacrificed in US-Iran Tension

 
Tolo News
5 Jan 2020

A former Taliban member said the Taliban does not want to work for other countries’ interests.

A source within the Taliban says the leadership of the group has initially agreed that they do not want to be taken advantage of by recent US-Iran escalation.

According to the source, there is acknowledgement that the killing of the Iranian elite force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani will certainly have an impact on the peace talks between the US and the Taliban, but the group does not want to be hated by the people of Afghanistan for fighting on someone else’s behalf.

Sources close to the Taliban said that Iran has an influence on the Taliban faction of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, which is mostly stationed in the western and southern parts of Afghanistan

“The Taliban are patriotic people. They do not want the Afghan soil to be used for others’ interests… and they do not want to do anything that they will be hated here in Afghanistan in the future,” a former Taliban commander Sayed Akbar Agha said.

Last year Iran was accused by the US of supplying the Taliban and some other groups in the Middle East with Fajr missiles.

In December 2018, Afghan officials in the central province of Ghazni said they had seized Iran-made weapons from the Taliban in the province.

But Iran has always denied such allegations.

“Iran will use all possible options against the United States but if it will use the Taliban–I don’t see the possibility,” MP Qayum Sajjadi said.

Meanwhile, the National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib in a meeting with the Iranian Ambassador to Kabul has called on Tehran and Washington to end their tensions through talks.

“The national security advisor in his meeting with the Iranian ambassador said that Afghanistan assures its neighbors that its soil will not be used against any other country,” Mohib’s spokesman Jawed Faisal said.

Taliban: We Don’t Want to be Sacrificed in US-Iran Tension
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John Bass, U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan, Steps Down on Cusp of New Peace Deal

By 

The New York Times

Jan. 6, 2020

The State Department said it was typical for ambassadors to serve only two years in Kabul, given the high-stress nature of the job.

Credit…Pool photo by Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — The American ambassador to Afghanistan is leaving his post after two years in Kabul, the State Department announced on Monday.

The departure of the ambassador, John R. Bass, comes as the United States is again trying to negotiate a tentative peace agreement with the Taliban that could withdraw American forces from Afghanistan in exchange for reduced violence.

It was not immediately clear where Mr. Bass would next be assigned, and a State Department official would not comment. A recent reshuffling of senior diplomats at the department’s headquarters in Washington has created openings in several high-level positions, although it was unknown if that was where Mr. Bass was headed.

The State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was typical for ambassadors to serve only two years in Kabul, the Afghan capital, given the high-stress nature of the job. He said Mr. Bass was not being removed from his assignment because of any disagreement with the administration, and that his departure had in fact been long planned.

In the diplomatic circles in Kabul, the chatter was that Mr. Bass was leaving at the completion of his two years for personal reasons. His parents were ill, and repeated difficult postings abroad had kept him away from family for long stretches.

The Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban for most of the last year in hopes of winding down a war that began with an American invasion of Afghanistan in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The two sides were close to striking a preliminary deal last September, but President Trump called off the talks after a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul killed an American soldier and 11 others. But in an unannounced visit to Afghanistan over Thanksgiving, the president said the diplomatic effort was back on track, and called for an ambitious cease-fire that has long been demanded by the government in Kabul, if spurned by the Taliban.

In recent weeks, Taliban officials and American diplomats had neared announcing some form of a cease-fire across Afghanistan, albeit a brief one. Details of the plan, however, were denied by Taliban officials, and it remains unclear what derailed the announcement.

In December, the diplomatic talks had again paused after the Taliban carried out a brazen attack on Bagram Air Field, the largest American base in Afghanistan. More recently, Taliban negotiators have temporarily suspended the talks to consult with their leaders, but they are expected to resume as soon as this week in Qatar.

The American negotiating team is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador and special envoy, but Mr. Bass has been included in the talks.

Ross Wilson, a retired career ambassador, will replace Mr. Bass.

Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Bass recently criticized the Afghan special intelligence agency for using “Soviet-style tactics” after a human-rights activist appeared to have been coerced into retracting accusations that Afghan educators had raped 165 boys.

He will be replaced by Ross Wilson, a retired career ambassador who was previously the top American diplomat in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Mr. Wilson is taking a leave of absence from the Atlantic Council think tank and the nonprofit Global Minnesota networking organization to run the embassy in Kabul until a permanent ambassador is nominated, the State Department official said.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

John Bass, U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan, Steps Down on Cusp of New Peace Deal
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As winter sets in, Afghans feel the chill of endless peace talk and political paralysis

Shoppers crowd a market in Kabul, as an icy winter takes hold in the Afghan capital and peace talks with the Taliban drag on. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/for The Washington Post)
Shoppers crowd a market in Kabul, as an icy winter takes hold in the Afghan capital and peace talks with the Taliban drag on. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/for The Washington Post)

KABUL — Across the Afghan capital, carpentry shops are turning out crude pine tables. Soon, thousands of families will spend icy winter evenings huddled around them, with a few hot coals underneath and blankets spread over the top. In many areas, electricity cuts and high firewood costs have made these traditional “sandalis” the only source of heat.

“The cold is getting worse, the prices are going up and there is no work,” said Baba Pahlawan, 70, who sells firewood for about 8 cents a pound. Most customers, he said, can afford only a few sticks at a time. When they run out, they buy a few pieces of coal. When that runs out, “people stay under their blankets and wait for the morning.”

As another harsh winter approaches, worry is sharpening the seasonal chill in this bustling but bedraggled city of 4 million surrounded by white-capped mountains. It is being felt not only in communities like Pahlawan’s — and not only because of the worsening daily struggle to survive.

Two larger, intertwined struggles to determine the country’s future have dominated the national conversation for months: on-and-off peace talks with Taliban insurgents and a contentious process to choose a new president. Now, both efforts have slowed to a near-halt, and analysts say it may be spring before either bears fruit.

Negotiations between Taliban and U.S. officials, which had advanced in fits and starts, were canceled by President Trump in September. This month the talks were revived, and various truce proposals are under discussion. But the insurgents seem in no hurry to make a deal, while the White House appears likely to withdraw thousands of troops even as Taliban violence continues.

Firewood seller Baba Pahlawan, 70, says most customers can buy only a few sticks at a time. He said Afghans desperately need jobs created, but he worries the war with the Taliban will continue to overshadow everything. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)
Firewood seller Baba Pahlawan, 70, says most customers can buy only a few sticks at a time. He said Afghans desperately need jobs created, but he worries the war with the Taliban will continue to overshadow everything. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

On Monday, 33-year-old Army Sgt. Michael J. Goble of Washington Township, N.J., 33, was killed during combat operations in northern Kunduz province, becoming the 20th American service member to die violently in Afghanistan this year. Taliban spokesmen claimed responsibility for his death in a roadside bombing.

Meanwhile, the troubled Afghan governing transition has become bogged down in complaints of fraud, leaving the country rudderless and tense. On Sunday, election officials released preliminary results showing that President Ashraf Ghani narrowly won reelection in the Sept. 28 poll, with just over 50 percent of the vote, but his opponents immediately challenged the results.

It will now probably take many weeks for an election panel to review thousands of fraud allegations, including charges that numerous votes were cast before or after election day. If enough votes are invalidated, a runoff will be required in the spring.

“We are at a deadlock of war and peace and politics,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence director who placed third in the race. He predicted that with up to 300,000 ballots being challenged and a 12,000-vote margin announced between Ghani and his top contender, Abdullah Abdullah, a runoff is likely.

But others also warned that further delays could lead to political turmoil. The insurgents have refused to recognize Ghani’s government, and Nabil said a broad array of Afghans need to “sit down and discuss the way forward. Either a fraudulent government or a parallel one would be dangerous for democracy.”

Ghani and his aides have put an aggressive, upbeat face on the situation. The president promised one gathering of supporters this week that he and his “state-building team” will consolidate a “true Islamic republic” — meaning a Muslim democracy. Taliban leaders seek to install a theocratic emirate.

While U.S. and U.N. officials have cautioned that the election will not be over until all complaints have been investigated, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shares Afghans’ widespread antipathy toward their common neighbor, Pakistan, has already called to congratulate Ghani.

For many Afghans, both the election contretemps and the disappointing trajectory of the U.S.-Taliban talks exemplify the distance between high-level power struggles and everyday concerns.

“Peace and elections are the preoccupations of the elite, while human circumstances are in crisis,” said Davood Moradian, executive director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “Facebook has created a virtual world for Afghan politics, but it is not the world in which most Afghans live.”

In interviews this week, a variety of Kabul residents said they were disillusioned with the national leadership, especially those living in poverty. After years of massive foreign aid, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries. A recent survey by the Asia Foundation said that a quarter of Afghan households earn less than $64 a month.

“There is no security, and there are no jobs, because all the rich people have fled,” said Mawladaad Wasi, 32, who carts wood and coal all day but does not earn enough to keep his home warm. He denounced politicians as corrupt and said funds spent on the elections “should have been donated to poor people.”

Many Kabul residents say they are disillusioned with the country’s current leaders. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/for The Washington Post)
Many Kabul residents say they are disillusioned with the country’s current leaders. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/for The Washington Post)

Several others with professional backgrounds seemed equally despairing. Some said they had lost good jobs after the drastic cutback in U.S. troops in 2014; others blamed the conflict for blocking investment or said the Ghani government had failed to create jobs while pursuing grandiose projects.

Abdul Rashid, 53, was once a teacher, but he now sells fruit. He said two of his sons had to leave school to work washing cars, while he returns home exhausted each night after 15-hour days pushing a heavy cart.

“I am very worried about the future,” Rashid said. “If we did not see improvement for a majority of people during the past 18 years, when there was a flood of foreign aid and troops, how can we be hopeful for a future that brings peace and good governance?”

Last year, the Asia Foundation survey found that Afghans’ optimism had increased slightly, with 36 percent of respondents saying the country was “going in the right direction,” up from about 32 percent in 2018. But much of that increase, it said, was based on hopes for a breakthrough in peace talks.

Since September, that hope has subsided again. Even if a proposed brief truce can be reached, analysts said, the likelihood of further U.S. troop cuts has left the insurgents feeling more powerful, while the election dispute lessens the chance of creating a unified, credible Afghan team to negotiate the country’s political future.

“The momentum has been lost,” Moradian said. “Things are stuck, enthusiasm for the peace effort has dwindled, and the Taliban look like they are aiming for victory.” The United States, he said “used to own the peace process. But no one in Kabul does.”

Sitting next to a pyramid of firewood, Pahlawan put the problem another way.

“What we need are more factories, so people can go to work and stop being beggars,” he said. “Instead it looks like we are just going to have more war.”

Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.

As winter sets in, Afghans feel the chill of endless peace talk and political paralysis
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