Ex-Afghan Adviser Expects Taliban Will Forgo Peace Talks With Ashraf Ghani

In the days leading up to a United Nations-led summit on Afghanistan's peace process, a former adviser to the Afghan government said he does not expect the cooperation of the Taliban, which has refused to attend any conference while foreign troops are still on the ground.

Responding to President Joe Biden's Wednesday announcement of a May 1-September 11 plan to withdrawal 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter that "problems will certainly increase" if the U.S. fails to meet a May 1 deadline established under President Donald Trump.

Farhadi said that the Taliban, which has refused to sit at the same table as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, will likely negotiate with local leaders around the war-torn nation and wait for American troops to leave. The strategy would weaken and isolate Ghani, leveraging more power for the insurgents' stronghold.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Afghanistan on Thursday for an unscheduled visit to reassure the public and government officials about the planned U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. is applying indirect pressure on the Taliban and the Afghan government to strike a peace deal in hopes of avoiding further instability.

"It's important for the Taliban to recognize that it will never be legitimate and it will never be durable if it rejects the political process and tries to take the country by force," Blinken said at a press conference in Kabul at the end of the 24-hour surprise visit.

Biden Afghanistan
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 14: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced his plans to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 in a final step towards ending America’s longest war. A former Afghan advisor said Thursday that he does not expect to Taliban to cooperate with negotiations with the Afghan government. Andrew Harnik-Poo/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

The Biden administration's surprise announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 appears to strip the Taliban and the Afghan government of considerable leverage and could ramp up pressure on them to reach a peace deal.

The Taliban and Afghan government can no longer hold the U.S. hostage — the Taliban with escalating violence and the Afghan president by dragging his feet on a power-sharing deal with the insurgents that doesn't include him as president — because Washington made it clear that U.S. troops are leaving, no matter what.

Still, there are growing fears that Afghanistan will collapse into worsening chaos, brutal civil war, or even a takeover by the Taliban once the Americans are gone — opening a new chapter in the constant war that has lasted for decades.

Already, violence and seemingly random attacks on civilians have surged since former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that had committed Washington to withdraw by May 1 this year. More than 1,700 civilians were killed or wounded in attacks the first three months of 2021, up 23% from the same period last year, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

NATO announced it would follow the same timetable as the U.S. for withdrawing nearly 10,000 troops, 7,000 of whom are non-U.S. soldiers.

In leaving, Washington has calculated that it can manage its chief security interest — ensuring Afghanistan doesn't become a base for terror attacks on the United States — from a distance.

Still, it is hoping to leave a country with a chance at peace. The U.S. is pressing the Taliban and the Afghan government to reach a peace agreement during an April 24 to May 4 conference in Turkey.

At the moment, it's not certain that the Taliban will attend.

With their leadership headquartered in Pakistan, the Taliban ignore Islamabad at their own peril. Until now, Pakistan has been key to getting the insurgent militia to earlier rounds of talks and has expressed support for the Turkey conference.

The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan. But they also have much to lose if they walk away from the peace process, particularly a chance at international recognition. The group has been courting world powers since 2013 when they set up their political office in the Qatari capital Doha.

The U.S. has warned that the Taliban won't get that recognition if they are not part of a new government. The Turkey conference, jointly convened by the United Nations, lends international support to that warning.

The bet is that the Taliban won't want to rule as a pariah, as they did from 1996 until their overthrow by the U.S.-led coalition in 2001. They had no money to feed their people, unemployment was rampant and drought and poverty devastated farmers. Their only source of income in the final years was from al-Qaida and its wealthy Saudi leader at the time, Osama bin Laden.

Responding to the U.S. strategy shift, Ghani pledged to pursue peace, without elaborating. He tweeted late Wednesday that he had spoken with Biden and "we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition."

Previously, Ghani had floated an alternative peace plan that calls for him to head an interim government until fresh elections can be held. Rejected by the Taliban, it's seen by his political opponents as an attempt to cling to power.

Ghani's government has been denounced for runaway corruption and divisive politics. He has embraced warlords he once shunned, like Uzbek powerhouse Rashid Dostum, accused of war crimes.

The many warlords who hold sway in Kabul have amassed considerable wealth in the last 20 years and boast loyal militias with well-equipped arsenals. Most Afghans say the U.S. and NATO troop presence has kept feuding warlords apart and fear that without it the country will collapse back into the brutal infighting that raged from 1992-1996, giving rise to the Taliban.

The previous Trump deal with the Taliban had imposed conditions. The big one was that the Taliban break with their longtime ally, al-Qaida, and stand against other militants before U.S. troops would withdraw.

A senior Taliban official earlier told The Associated Press that the group last month ordered the remnants of al-Qaida and other militants out of the country and told its own fighters not to associate with foreign fighters.

Asfandyar Mir, at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said the order against foreign fighters was a good first step. But he noted it only confirms the Taliban's use of foreign fighters, which it long denied — even as publications affiliated to the Taliban and al-Qaida touted al-Qaida's oath of loyalty to the Taliban leader, Hibatullah Akunzada.

Mir also pointed to the evidence of al-Qaida operations even in recent years in areas under Taliban control.

Controlling militant groups will be even harder if Afghanistan tumbles into chaos.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center said that it's "hard to imagine any scenario under which peace would break out post-Sept. 11 in Afghanistan."

"The best hope is that the peace process won't be dead," he said.