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Opposition, Skepticism Cloud New U.S. Proposal For Afghan Peace

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) with U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) with U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)

A new proposal by the United States for reinvigorating the fledgling peace process in Afghanistan faces strong opposition from the Afghan government as independent experts cast doubt over the prospects of its success.

The proposal, outlined in a document reportedly circulated among Afghan leaders by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week and a letter by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, envisions an interim power-sharing government with the Taliban, a cease-fire, and a U.N.-sponsored conference of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers to garner their support.

While U.S. diplomats discussed the plan with Afghan journalists last week, the State Department refused to talk about Blinken’s letter because of its policy to refrain from comment on “alleged correspondence with foreign leaders.”

“We have the right not to hang the fate of 35 million people on someone else’s schedule,” Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh told a gathering in Kabul on March 8. “The Americans and their Western allies have every right to decide the fate of 2,500 U.S. and a few thousand NATO troops now stationed in our country,” he added while alluding to the May 1 deadline for complete U.S. troop withdrawal stipulated by Washington’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban.

Saleh reiterated his administration’s position that only elected leaders can govern Afghanistan and Afghan voters should be the ones to freely choose them. “We held two days of talks with U.S. officials and told them we will never compromise on the rights of the people of Afghanistan,” he said.

Earlier, on March 6, Ghani said the transfer of power through elections is a “nonnegotiable principle” that outside parties are welcome to weigh in on. "We stand ready to discuss holding free, fair, and inclusive elections under the auspices of the international community. We can also talk about the date of the elections and reach a conclusion," he said.

In a draft of the proposal made public by Afghanistan’s private television network TOLOnews, the first part outlines key principles that will govern the process. The second talks about a transitional government and a roadmap to peace while the last talks of a “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

“The draft reflects a variety of ideas and priorities of Afghans on both sides of the conflict and is intended to focus the negotiators on some of the most fundamental issues they will need to address,” the proposal noted. “Ultimately, the two sides will determine their own political future and the contours of any political settlement.”

In his “blunt” letter to Ghani, Blinken said these proposals are “aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and cease-fire.”

While urging him to participate in a senior-level peace meeting with the Taliban in Turkey in the coming weeks, Blinken warned of looming difficulties for the Afghan government.

“Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” he wrote.

The top U.S. diplomat also talked about a U.N.-sponsored meeting to win the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional and global powers for the initiative.

“To move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire, we are immediately pursuing a high-level diplomatic effort,” Blinken wrote, adding that the initiative will include his counterparts from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India. “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” he noted.

In Washington, seasoned observers were not convinced. Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan-Pakistan analyst at the State Department, said the initiative is underpinned by the view that it can replicate the 2001 international conference in Bonn, Germany, that laid the groundwork for the creation of Afghanistan’s current state institutions.

“What this approach offers in hope, it lacks in practicality,” he noted, adding that at the time of the Taliban’s routing in late 2001 following a U.S.-led military attack, there were no functioning state institutions in Afghanistan. “Today there is an elected constitutional government that would be replaced,” he added. “A Taliban insurgency [now] is threatening to impose its own form of government.”

Weinbaum, now director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, argues that the regional context for the Afghan war has also changed and Kabul’s neighbors are hedging their bets.

“International goodwill toward Afghanistan that existed two decades is long gone, and all its neighbors are currently acting according to their hedging strategies,” he said. In addition to Pakistan’s somewhat consistent support for the Taliban, Iran has also cultivated expanding ties with the Islamist group, while Russia has extended public diplomatic support to the group.

In Weinbaum’s view, the Taliban’s behavior does not show a willingness to compromise “from the time of destroyed Buddhas, when set on its goals the Taliban has proved to be oblivious to international pressures,” he said, referring to the Taliban’s destruction of 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley 20 years ago. “Additionally, the U.S. plan hinges on an unlikely coalescing of Afghanistan’s squabbling factions.”

The Taliban’s political office in Doha said its leaders were studying the proposals. “It is under discussion [and] after discussion, we will have a position on it,” said Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the office.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, noted that the proposed plan prioritizes U.S. interests and timelines even more than the original deal last year.

“Even if the Taliban agreed to a ‘Bonn 2 formula,’ this would leave the causes of conflict unaddressed,” he wrote. “It would hand the implementation of an agreement to parties who so far and to varying degrees have not been willing to seriously negotiate with each other or share power.”

In an apparent effort to win regional support for the new plan, Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy, arrived in Islamabad on March 8 to hold discussions with Pakistani leaders, who have largely backed his efforts to since 2018. With the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops looming, his window for crafting a consensus among Afghans and their neighbors is narrowing.