Words by Oliver Mizzi
Intra-Afghan peace talks resumed after a Tweet from Taliban spokesperson Mohammad Naeem on Monday 22 February. Naeem cited the US-Taliban agreement – signed last year – as the reason for the resumption. The talks have come after a period of heavy winter fighting, with the Afghan government seemingly on the backfoot on the ground.
The Afghan government and the US have both reaffirmed their commitment to a political solution. In an interview with the BBC President Ghani said that he would step down as president, and hold elections, if there was a peace deal and ceasefire. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a discussion with President Ghani on 18 February, also reiterated support for the peace process.
Just as the peace talks continued in Doha, so too did the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban has continued fighting Afghan forces over the winter, and according to the New York Times, Taliban forces have taken control of areas outside the cities of Kunduz and Kandahar – provincial capitals in their respective provinces.
It was also speculated that the Taliban is preparing for a major spring offensive, with Taliban sources close to Reuters news agency stating that commanders “are being called back to the battlefield to prepare for intensive fighting”. As a result, Afghan special forces are being streamlined and placed under one command.
The growing uncertainty surrounding the ability of the Government to hold off a Taliban offensive has prompted the Biden administration to rethink the US-Taliban peace deal signed last year. A report from the Afghanistan Study Group to congress recommended “an immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date” and to continue supporting the government diplomatically and militarily for an acceptable outcome.
Moreover, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that there is “no final decision on the future of our presence”, indicating a reluctance to leave the country. A report from Operation Freedom’s Sentinel – the NATO mission in the country – stated that if NATO withdraws, the Afghan Air Force would only be “combat effective for more than a few months”.
In response to questions around the government’s ability to survive independently, President Ghani stated, “this is not Vietnam”. However, civilian casualties have been rising sharply in the last quarter of 2020, coinciding with the start of peace talks. The Taliban has blamed the US and Afghan forces for not abiding by the last years peace deal, whilst denying responsibility for the recent violence.
Picture Credit: The U.S. Army