- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Biden administration is sounding a strikingly skeptical tone on the prospects for a durable Afghan-Taliban power-sharing deal, putting into doubt a major diplomatic achievement of the Trump administration.

The U.S. is receiving warnings from Kabul that peace talks with the militants are going nowhere.

A successful deal is critical to U.S. hopes to withdraw the last 2,500 American combat troops in Afghanistan, but there were indications Sunday that allied forces fighting alongside U.S. troops are not ready to go home.

With the Biden administration declaring last week that the Taliban have failed to live up to Trump-era commitments to reduce violence, the U.S.-backed Afghan government has bluntly called out the militants for undermining the fragile peace process.

“The Taliban are finding one excuse after another not to meet,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Friday to a Washington teleconference. He argued that the radical Islamist group has also failed to meet the conditions laid out in the February 2020 deal with Washington.

American allies are now openly planning on keeping troops on the ground inside Afghanistan beyond the tentative May withdrawal deadline outlined last year. Senior NATO officials told Reuters on Sunday that international forces are prepared to stay in Afghanistan beyond the tentative deadline.

“No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.

A key member of the Afghan government’s peace negotiating team said Sunday that the Taliban are deliberately delaying talks and that Kabul would pull out of the agreement if the militants don’t quickly return to the negotiating table in Qatar.

Afghan government negotiator Rasul Talib told a news conference that his team is waiting for the return of Taliban leadership to Doha, where a second round of peace talks began in January but made little progress.

“The Taliban does not have the guts for peace,” said Mr. Talib, accusing the militants of “spreading nonsense around.”

Taliban leaders have sharply challenged that description and appear eager to keep the U.S. troop drawdown on track.

“Ever since we signed the agreement with the American side, we haven’t been involved in any aggressive actions,” Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, a leader of the Taliban negotiating team, said on a visit to Moscow last week. “We hope that the U.S. will continue to honor the agreement reached in Doha. It’s in its interests.”

Mr. Stanikzai said the militant group still expects the U.S. to fulfill its pledge to withdraw all American troops by May.

But Mr. Ghani said just days later that “violence has peaked” in Afghanistan in recent months and urged the U.S. and NATO to take a “strong stand” on Taliban compliance with the deal.

The Biden administration said it had begun a review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the face a wave of terrorist attacks and the faltering talks.

Major conditions of the U.S.-Taliban deal called for the rebels to work to reduce violence, cut ties with outside terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and negotiate with the Kabul government in good faith on a lasting peace deal. Direct attacks on American forces have stopped, but clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain routine.

Selfies with suicide bombers

The February 2020 deal set into motion major prisoner exchanges between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Mr. Ghani said Friday that “there was an expectation that genuine peace talks would take place” after that, but “peace has not been socialized to the Taliban commanders or rank and files.”

To the contrary, he said, Taliban operatives have been “taking pictures with suicide bombers” and continue to offer sanctuary to terrorist groups.

Top Biden administration officials in the State Department and Pentagon said the U.S. troop withdrawal, the top priority of the Taliban, was always meant to be “conditions-based.” Veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the 2020 accord, is one of the few top Trump administration foreign policy figures whom Mr. Biden is keeping on.

The situation is shaping up as an early foreign policy test for Mr. Biden.

While confirming that Mr. Khalilzad will remain as special envoy, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last week that “one of the first things we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements.”

Pentagon officials said Thursday that the Taliban leadership has failed to meet commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan, raising serious questions about whether all U.S. troops will be able to leave by May.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. stands for now by its commitment for a full troop withdrawal but added that the “Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and reduce their ties to al Qaeda.”

In addition to ongoing clashes between the Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan government forces, a wave of assassinations has recently struck Afghanistan. Attacks have targeted journalists, clerics, provincial officials and, in several cases, prominent women seeking a voice in the peace process and the country’s future political landscape.

As for ongoing Taliban ties to al Qaeda, a recent Treasury Department inspector general’s memo maintained that, as of 2020, al Qaeda was “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.”

The Jan. 4, 2021, memo was cited last week in a report by the Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Mr. Kirby said Thursday that “without [the Taliban] meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement.”

Days before leaving office, President Trump ordered U.S. troops levels to be cut to 2,500. At the beginning of 2020, the figure stood at more than 13,000.

Mr. Biden also faces pressure from skeptics of the Afghanistan War, which is by far the longest in American history. He likely is reluctant to expand or maintain indefinitely a military mission there as one of his first major foreign policy decisions.

“Any unilateral move by Washington and NATO to extend the May troop withdrawal deadline will end the diplomatic process and place targets on the backs of U.S. troops,” Adam Weinstein, a Middle East research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said in an emailed statement to reporters Sunday. “This will mark a return to the failed counterinsurgency of the last two decades.”

But retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and former CIA director, expressed concern Friday that a rapid U.S. force drawdown could be disastrous.

Mr. Petraeus told the Aspen Institute gathering that he had a “nagging fear as an old soldier” that the situation could devolve into “the kind of civil war that we saw in the 1990s after the departure of the Soviets.”

A Soviet military invasion in 1979 led to a decadelong occupation, but the hard-line Taliban movement was able to topple the weak government left behind and take control of Kabul in 1996. The Taliban later agreed to host Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda movement, which planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from its sanctuary inside Afghanistan.

• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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