Afghan Peace Talks Resume Following Spate of Violence

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Afghan Peace Talks Resume Following Spate of Violence

Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, right, met with U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in Kabul on Tuesday.

Photo: high council for national reconc/Reuters

KABUL—The Afghan government and the Taliban resumed talks aimed at ending nearly two decades of fighting, with recent targeted killings and widespread attacks underscoring the high stakes as U.S. troops are withdrawn from the country.

Kabul and the insurgent group began their first-ever peace talks in September in Qatar’s capital following a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban in February. Their delegations took a break last month after reaching a compromise on procedural disagreements.

Members of the two sides convened in Doha on Tuesday for negotiations that are likely to drag on for months, if not longer. Both sides will have an eye on the incoming Biden administration for any change in the U.S.’s Afghan policy—in particular its plan to draw down troops.

“The success of the talks also depends on future engagement from the U.S. on this issue,” said Nader Nadery, a negotiator and spokesman for the Afghan government.

The Taliban didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Jake Sullivan, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, told CNN on Sunday that the administration would seek to support the peace process.

While Kabul has called for an immediate cease-fire as a priority, the Taliban—whose greatest leverage is its ability to inflict violence—has refused.

A security official inspected the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 7, 2020.

Photo: m sadiq/Shutterstock

Both sides have accused the other of ramping up attacks in recent months. But an unclaimed assassination campaign in recent weeks targeting high-profile activists and journalists has brought a new phase of terror to the capital and other cities. Many of those targeted have championed the values the U.S. has worked to promote in the war-torn country.

“The current levels of violence, including targeted killings, is unacceptable,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation, tweeted on his return to Doha. “Those perpetuating the violence seek to undermine the peace process.”

Under last year’s deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, all American forces are set to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May this year as part of President Trump’s desire to end what he has called “the forever wars.” In exchange, the Taliban agreed to prevent groups hostile to the U.S. from operating in the country and to engage in negotiations with Kabul.

Most U.S. troops have already left Afghanistan, with the number expected to total 2,500 in mid-January. U.S. and Afghan officials say the peace process wouldn’t survive a complete American exit.

Current and former U.S. officials say the Biden administration is likely to delay the deadline to withdraw all remaining troops because the Taliban haven’t met certain conditions and other time lines have lapsed.

Afghan Peace Talks

For example, these officials say the Taliban appear to be falling short on a pledge to keep groups hostile to the U.S. from recruiting and training in Afghanistan. A United Nations report published last year described continued close relations between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Mr. Biden in September told Stars and Stripes, a U.S. newspaper, that he would support keeping a small, residual force in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations.

Some experts caution that an extension to the timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops could jeopardize the Afghan peace talks.

“This withdrawal is one of the core objectives of this movement and that has kept them going for the past 20 years,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Afghan governments have blamed the Taliban for the recent spate of targeted killings, accusing the group of seeking to silence liberal voices and gain leverage at the negotiating table. The Taliban have denied involvement in the killings.

On Monday, the U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan on Twitter accused the Taliban of targeting civil society and journalists, and harming chances for peace.

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That came after the insurgent group’s spokesman tweeted that the U.S. was violating the terms of the February deal by carrying out airstrikes, and threatened a violent response.

Many journalists have gone into hiding and some have fled the country after receiving threats, reflecting widening concern about fraying security in Afghanistan.

Some of the most prominent people to have been killed include democracy advocate Yousuf Rasheed, the head of the Free and Fair Elections Forum of Afghanistan, who was gunned down in Kabul in December. Women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani and her brother were also shot dead last month in Kapisa province, days after she posted on social media that she had asked the authorities for protection, without success.

Last week, Bismillah Adil, the editor in chief of a local radio station in the central Ghor province, became the fifth journalist to be assassinated by unknown attackers in less than two months. A sixth killing is under investigation.

Write to Jessica Donati at jessica.donati@wsj.com

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