Afghans Worry as US Makes Progress in Taliban Talks

FILE - In this photo released by the Afghan Presidential Palace, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, speaks to U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, third left, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2019.

As the U.S. makes headway in its direct talks with the Taliban, a sense of nervousness and betrayal has kicked in, with many government officials and ordinary Afghans fearing the country may return to the chaos it experienced following the Soviet Union's withdrawal in the late 1980s.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has been holding discussions with the Afghan Taliban, Afghan government officials, and local and regional stakeholders in recent weeks to seek a negotiated settlement for America's longest war in Afghanistan.

Officials told VOA Saturday that a draft pact had been reached between the U.S. and the Taliban.

FILE - U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, speaks during a roundtable discussion with Afghan media at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2019.

The draft reportedly requires U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan within 18 months of the agreement being signed in exchange for the Taliban pledging not to allow the Afghan territory to serve as a base for terrorism.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday said he welcomes efforts toward reaching peace but insisted that they be carefully deliberated.

"We insist on deliberations because we are fully aware of the experience of Dr. Najibullah's government. We all know how he was betrayed. The U.N. promised him that peace would prevail after his departure from power but unfortunately, what ensued was a catastrophe," Ghani said in a joint Pashto and Dari statement to the nation following the news the tentative deal between the U.S and Taliban.

Najibullah was the Soviet-installed president of Afghanistan from September 1986 to April 1992. He took refuge in the United Nations headquarters until he was executed by the Taliban on Sept. 26, 1996.

FILE - Tanks manned by Taliban fighters and decorated with flowers are shown in front of the the presidential palace in Kabul, Sept. 27, 1996. The Islamic rebels executed President Najibullah the day before.

"As a responsible and elected leader of 35 million Afghans, I am fully aware of the dynamics in the region and the world and can recognize the possible risks and threats after a peace deal," Ghani added.


An Afghan official with knowledge of the recent developments within the Afghan government told VOA on condition of anonymity that the Afghan government feels anxious about the speed of the talks and the possibility that the U.S may hastily settle for a quick fix.

"We are concerned that the special representative [Khalilzad] may opt for a convenient shortcut and contract us out to Pakistan, something that happened following the end of the Cold War," the official said.

Amrullah Saleh, a former minister of interior and a running mate for President Ghani, took to social media to express his opposition to a deal with the Taliban which would not be owned by the Afghan government.

Key to peace

Talking to different media outlets Monday in Kabul, Khalilzad made an effort to calm the paranoia and reiterated the U.S. commitment to long-term stability in Afghanistan.

"We are working together to get to a comprehensive cease-fire. We are working with the Afghan government, with international partners to find implementing mechanisms to reach these goals," he said.

"The key for finding the solutions for Afghan problems is at the hands of Afghans now," Khalilzad added.

Khalilzad rejected reports that the U.S and Taliban have agreed on the establishment of an interim government, a proposition that reportedly rattled many Afghans, including senior government officials.

Election challenges?

Afghan presidential elections were to be held in April of this year, but in late December the country's election commission announced that due to some technical glitches witnessed in the country's parliamentary elections in October and the need to be better prepared, elections would be delayed for three months.

Some experts charge that the delay had a lot to do with the ongoing peace talks.

Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at the U.S.-based Rand Corporation, charges that getting the Afghan sides closer to bilateral talks without infringing on the sovereignty of the Afghan government has always been a challenge for the U.S.

"What makes this more complicated is the looming presidential election that will have a large, contentious field of candidates vying for support. Such an environment will likely both pressure candidates, to include especially President Ghani, to demonstrate authority and resolve and enhance the Taliban's reluctance to engage a government that may not be in power in a few months," Campbell said.

"Considering this, it is difficult to envision any substantial breakthroughs in a genuine peace process in the next few months," he added.

"President Ghani should either make peace [with Taliban] or hold presidential elections. Both cannot be achieved at the same time," Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst, told VOA.


There are also concerns that a peace deal may come at the expense of losing the hard-earned achievements of the past 17 years.

Sima Samar, chair of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told VOA the Afghan ownership of the talks is key to preserving those gains.

"We advocate for extended participation of the Afghan people, especially women and [war] victims in the peace process because if we ignore the victims' rights, access to justice and human rights, we won't have a lasting peace," Samar said.

'Tired of war'

Mubina Sai Khairandish, a female activist in northern Balkh province, said continued war has made people tired.

"The people of Afghanistan are supporting the peace process because they are tired of war. However, they are concerned that the government of Afghanistan is excluded from peace talks," she said.

"Concerns also include women rights, freedom of speech, human rights, constitution rights and other democratic achievements," she added.

Asif Popalzai, a Kabul-based businessman, told VOA that peace and preserving the achievements should go hand in hand.

"We support Mr. Khalilzad's peace process only if we don't lose the achievements we have had during the past 17 years," he said. "No one in Afghanistan wants a government similar to that of Taliban regime, even if it brings peace."

VOA's Afghan service contributed to this report.