- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The top Afghan negotiator for talks with the Taliban expressed hope Wednesday the talks can still proceed, despite claims by others in the Afghan government that the militant group recently killed nearly 300 Afghan security personnel in the “deadliest” week of the country’s 19 years of conflict.

Abdullah Abdullah, the former chief executive of the U.S.-backed Kabul government who is now heading Kabul’s High Council for National Reconciliation and is seen to be key to Trump administration efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan, said his team is prepared to make “compromises” in much-anticipated talks with the Taliban.

While he warned further attacks could derail the process, Mr. Abdullah sought to downplay reports of spiking violence during a webinar hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace Wednesday, pointing instead to interviews with Taliban fighters recently freed by Kabul and Afghan soldiers recently freed by the Taliban.

“Most have expressed a desire to live peacefully with their families,” he said, citing what he said was a report published Wednesday by the Kandahar News Service.

“My message to the Taliban is, a few may decide to join other fighters, but that’s not the right decision,” Mr. Abdullah said. “The collective call of the Afghan people and the majority of the Afghans for peace should be embraced by all of us. And both sides now have to remove the remaining obstacles and move toward talks.”

His comments came two days after a spokesman for the Afghan government’s National Security Council claimed the Taliban carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces during the week of June 15-21, killing at least 291 Afghan security personnel.

“The past week was the deadliest of the past 19 years,” Javid Faisal, the spokesman, tweeted Monday. He added that the “Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence is meaningless, and their actions inconsistent with their rhetoric on peace.”

The Taliban rejected the claims, asserting that some in Kabul are fabricating statistics to undermine the fragile peace process. A spokesman for the militant group told Agence France-Presse that there are enemies aiming to “hurt the peace process and intra-Afghan talks by releasing such false reports.”

The news agency noted that violence dropped across much of Afghanistan since the Taliban announced a three-day cease-fire on May 24 to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday, but that officials have accused the insurgents of stepping up attacks in recent weeks. The Taliban spokesman did acknowledge “some attacks last week” but claimed they were “mostly in defense.”

It remains to be seen whether the current back-and-forth will lead to the start of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban, the lack of which has threatened the breakthrough reduction in violence deal the Trump administration reached with the militant group in late February.

Under the deal, the Taliban vowed to block outside terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan in exchange for a Trump administration commitment to draw down the 13,000 American troops to about 8,600 over the coming months.

While the Pentagon has since said the troop reduction is on track, the long-term sustainability of the deal was contingent upon the start of direct peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were supposed to have begun quickly with a major prisoner swap as a confidence-building measure.

After much delay and infighting between Mr. Abdullah and other Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, there appeared to be momentum in late May, when Kabul suddenly freed nearly 1,000 Taliban prisoners and the Taliban reciprocated by releasing hundreds of Afghan security personnel.

But the intra-Afghan talks still haven’t begun — a reality that has prompted concerns in Washington over the viability of one of Mr. President Trump’s signature foreign policy efforts, the push to end and bring U.S. troops home from America’s longest war.

The Kabul government’s State Ministry on Peace Affairs has said in recent days that the venue and time of the start of intra-Afghan talks will be finalized after additional steps in an ongoing prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“With the completion of the prisoner swap between the two sides and a halt in the violence, arrangements will be made for the venue and date of intra-Afghan talks,” said Najia Anwari, a spokeswoman for the ministry, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo News.

However, the outlet also cited Jalaluddin Shinwari, a former senior Taliban leader in Kabul, as saying the intra-Afghan talks have been delayed due to the emergence of mistrust between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Mr. Abdullah, meanwhile, warned Wednesday that “spoilers” could steal momentum from the peace process. He also asserted that both sides have already agreed there is “no military solution.”

The current stalemate “is unsustainable given the number of factors at play inside Afghanistan, in the region and with other global priorities like the pandemic or the upcoming American elections,” Mr. Abdullah said. “We have no option but to aim for talks leading to a political settlement.”

He added that Kabul is “ready to start talks, ready to make compromises, ready to move forward for an end state, which works for all, a country which lives in peace … and respects the rights of its own people.”

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