Afghan government urges Taliban to stop violence, hold direct talks

World

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged the Taliban on Sunday to end violence and talk directly to his government after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he had canceled a planned meeting with the insurgent group over a draft peace accord.

FILE PHOTO: Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani speaks during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

“Real peace will come when Taliban agree to a ceasefire,” Ghani’s officials said in statement in response to Trump’s cancellation of the secret peace talks.

Trump unexpectedly announced on Saturday that he had canceled peace talks with the Taliban’s “major leaders” at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland after the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul last week that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

U.S. diplomats have been talking with Taliban representatives for months seeking to agree to a plan to withdraw thousands of American troops in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban.

A source close to the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan said the group will hold a meeting to discuss all aspects of ongoing negotiations before issuing a statement.

“Trump’s tweets do not clarify if the deal has been canceled, he has just called-off the talks at this stage,” the source said.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and stepped up assaults in recent weeks.

As negotiators reached a draft accord last week, Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since the war started in 2001, were launching assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri. They claimed responsibility for two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

Trump’s surprise announcement left in doubt the future of a draft peace accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan.

Under the accord some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

A full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

But nine former U.S. ambassadors last week had warned that Afghanistan could collapse in a “total civil war” if Trump withdraws all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban conclude a peace settlement.

A close aide to Ghani said Trump’s decision to cancel talks at a time when the Taliban continue to mount attacks proved the concerns expressed by the Afghan government about the deal were acknowledged.

“We stand with President Trump’s decision…the outcome of the draft deal did not guarantee a lasting peace in Afghanistan,” the aide said on conditions of anonymity.

Trump said on Saturday that he had also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president, who has been sidelined from the talks by the Taliban’s refusal to talk to what they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

Ghani’s office said in a statement it was committed to working together with the United States and allies for a “dignified and long-lasting peace”, and emphasized the holding of the presidential election this month.

Ghani is seeking a second tenure in elections scheduled for Sept. 28, but the Taliban want the elections to be canceled as a precondition to signing a peace accord with the Americans.

The statement said a lasting peace required “a strong, legitimate and a legal government through the upcoming elections to take the ongoing peace process forward with complete accuracy and prudence.”

The Taliban’s strategy of fresh assaults appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with U.S and Afghan officials.

Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

The warring sides have held nine rounds of peace talks in Qatar’s capital city Doha aimed at ending America’s longest war, which began with a U.S. invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, that al Qaeda launched from then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Writing by Rupam Jain, James Mackenzie in Kabul, Editing by Michael Perry

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