ISLAMABAD - A team of Afghans arrived Tuesday afternoon in the capital of Qatar to resume peace talks with the Taliban after a three-week break amid rising calls for a reduction in violence.
“The current levels of violence, including targeted killings, is unacceptable,” tweeted Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. diplomat who negotiated with the Taliban to deliver a deal between the U.S. and the insurgent group in February.
Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, the man leading the Afghan delegation, said achieving a cease-fire would be the top priority for this team. The Taliban has continued to resist that demand.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said a discussion on “a general cease-fire will be one of the agenda items” but not necessarily the first item.
According to the U.S.-Taliban deal, he added, “there is no order of priority and no specific time as to when the issue of cease-fire will be decided.”
The issue of cease-fire took center stage after violence in Afghanistan surged following the U.S. deal with the Taliban. While the insurgent group stopped direct attacks on foreign forces, it increased targeting Afghan security forces.
Zia Seraj, the director general of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, told the Afghan senate last month the Taliban were responsible for 99 percent of the 18,200 attacks in Afghanistan since the deal was reached.
Those attacks, Seraj said, included targeted killings of government officials, journalists, and civil society activists. At least six journalists have been killed in Afghanistan in the last two months.
The Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the targeted killings, but Colonel Sonny Leggett, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, on Twitter, called it the “Taliban's campaign of unclaimed attacks & targeted killings.”
Leggett’s comments were in response to the Taliban accusing the U.S. military of violating the Doha agreement and attacking civilians in “non-military zones.” Leggett denied those charges.
The accusations and counter accusations may affect progress in Doha that already has been slow since the official start of talks last September.
The first round, which lasted three months, only delivered an agreement on the code of conduct for the negotiations, or as some analysts termed it, “talks about talks.”
Still, the international community is pushing hard for the two sides to continue.
“These negotiations are critical in helping to bring about an end to fighting and creating a lasting peace,” said the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in its statement welcoming the resumption of talks, although UNAMA acknowledged the two sides were “confronted with some daunting challenges.”
Khalilzad, who is making the rounds in the region, including Kabul and Islamabad, to help boost the effort from outside, hoped that the current round would show “tangible progress.”
He also suggested, though, that the two sides needed to make “real compromises” to achieve that progress.
The talks have restarted at a time when the U.S. is dealing with a tense presidential transition process.
Whether the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden sticks to a timeline of withdrawing all foreign forces from Afghanistan by the end of April, as per the U.S.-Taliban deal, or slows down the pace of that withdrawal based on the conditions on the ground, may have an impact on how the intra-Afghan negotiations progress.
Many in Afghanistan fear a deal that compromises too many of the gains in terms of women’s rights, freedom of speech, and civil liberties made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The international community and rights groups have pushed to preserve as many of those rights as possible.
“#NATO supports a political settlement that preserves the gains made since 2001 for the benefit of all Afghans,” said a Tweet from the official handle of NATO in Afghanistan.