WASHINGTON - The United States Special Inspector General, tasked with monitoring U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, said the reintegration of tens of thousands of fighters into the Afghan society would be necessary for sustainable peace should talks resume.
Direct peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban are currently “dead” after President Donald Trump called them off earlier this month after a spike in violence.
John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said Thursday that whenever peace talks begin with the Taliban, the issue of reintegration would be a central factor in ensuring a “sustainable peace” in the country.
“For if there is ever to be a true, sustainable peace in Afghanistan, reintegration of the Taliban and other combatants will be a necessary component of that process, whether that process begins days — or years — from now,” Sopko said at an event at U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).
Sopko, however, cautioned against the U.S. supporting a comprehensive reintegration program in Afghanistan prematurely.
“As long as the Taliban insurgency continues, the U.S. should not support a comprehensive program to reintegrate former fighters, because of the difficulty in vetting, protecting and tracking former fighters,” Sopko said while discussing his organization’s recent report on Afghanistan.
“We recommend that the U.S. should consider supporting a reintegration effort if first, the Afghan government and Taliban sign a peace agreement that provides a framework for reintegration of ex-combatants; secondly, if a significant reduction in overall violence occurs; and thirdly, if a strong monitoring and evaluation system is established for reintegration efforts,” he added.
According to SIGAR, Taliban have an estimated 60,000 full-time fighters and about 90,000 seasonal fighters in Afghanistan.
Sopko said reintegration efforts have to be inclusive and combatants of all stripes have to be taken into consideration.
“A failure to reintegrate combatants of all stripes into Afghan society will only lead to the continuation of a 40-year cycle of war that has led to generations of Afghans growing up knowing only death and destruction,” Sopko said. “And for Afghanistan’s supporters, the continuation of the sacrifice of blood and treasure in a distant land.”
The U.S. had been engaged in several rounds of direct talks with the Taliban that lasted almost a year, and a potential deal was within sight between the two sides. Earlier this month, however, President Trump surprised many by announcing that he was calling off a previously secret plan to have Taliban officials and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani attend talks at the Camp David presidential retreat near Washington.
Trump said he canceled the event and the peace negotiations altogether after continued Taliban attacks in Kabul, including one that killed a U.S. soldier earlier this month.
“If they [Taliban] cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then it probably doesn’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight,” Trump said in a tweet at the time.
Zalmay Khalizad, the administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, in his first public appearance since peace talks were called off, spoke Thursday to a House of Representatives committee to answer questions about the talks as well as the administration’s future plans.
Ambassador Khalilzad had been subpoenaed to testify before U.S. lawmakers.
“While I would have preferred to hear from Ambassador Khalilzad in an open setting, I’m glad our members will have this long-overdue opportunity to press for answers on the peace plan,” Congressman Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.
Khalilzad held nine rounds of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, and had announced an “agreement in principle” with the Taliban. That plan had called for the United States to withdraw 5,000 of its 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, and for the Taliban to renounce ties with al-Qaida and guarantee Afghanistan would not be used for terror attacks against the United States.
Spike in violence
Following the collapse of the peace talks, there has been a spike in violence across Afghanistan in recent days with dozens of people, mostly civilians, killed and injured in attacks carried out by the Taliban.
The increase in violence also coincides with preparations for Afghan presidential elections scheduled for later this month. Taliban have warned people against participating in the elections and vowed to disrupt them.
At least 48 people were killed and dozens more were injured in an attack on a campaign rally in northern Afghanistan for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
The insurgent group also claimed responsibility for attacks in Kabul, Nangarhar and Zabul provinces this week that killed and injured dozens of civilians.
The White House condemned the attacks and called them “cowardly.”
“The United States strongly condemns the Taliban’s cowardly attacks against the Afghan people. Today’s bombing of the election rally in Parwan province killed nearly 30 Afghan civilians, including women and children, while the suicide attack in Kabul near the Afghan Ministry of Defense and U.S. Embassy compound killed more than 20 Afghans,” the White House said in a statement.
“The president has made clear that he will not negotiate a peace agreement while the Taliban continues such attacks,” the statement added.
The U.N. Security Council called the attacks “heinous” and underlined the need to hold the perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts accountable.
“The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the continuing high number of attacks in Afghanistan in recent weeks, and, most lately, in Qalat, Zabul province on 19 September, which resulted in at least 20 people killed and more than 95 injured, for which the Taliban have claimed responsibility,” the Security Council said in a statement.