ISLAMABAD - The Afghan Taliban’s turbulent negotiations with the United States on a peace deal have ground to a halt over differences on how to reduce insurgent violence.
The latest standoff in the peace process, being hosted by Qatar, comes amid a sharp increase in Taliban attacks on U.S.-backed Afghan government forces over the past week despite a very harsh winter. The violence has killed scores of combatants on both sides and caused more civilian casualties across Afghanistan.
Suhail Shaheen, who speaks for the Taliban’s negotiating team, told VOA on Friday that the U.S. side was to be blamed for the latest challenges facing the talks.
“We agree to provide a secure environment during the days of the signing of the agreement, but the Americans put forward do-more demands,” Shaheen said. “This has created hurdles in the process.”
Shaheen was indirectly referring to a Taliban proposal of scaling back insurgent operations for one week in order to sign the long-anticipated agreement with the U.S. The two adversaries have negotiated the document over the past year to end the 18-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest.
No U.S. reaction was immediately available to Friday’s Taliban assertions about the fate of negotiations.
Washington has been demanding the insurgent group commit to a “significant and lasting” reduction in violence before the peace deal is signed. But the Taliban are opposed to extending their weeklong offer of reduction in insurgent hostilities.
The U.S.-Taliban peace agreement, if signed, would allow about 13,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan to gradually withdraw from the country. It would also open direct Taliban-Afghan negotiations to discuss a nationwide cease-fire and political power-sharing.
Alice Wells, a senior Trump administration diplomat for the region, told reporters in Washington last week that U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and his team were “encouraging the Taliban to make a commitment to a reduction in violence that would allow Afghans to sit at a negotiating table.”
Meanwhile, Khalilzad traveled Friday to Pakistan where he discussed with civilian and military officials details of his latest engagements with Taliban interlocutors in Qatar.
Khalilzad held meetings with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
“Mr. Khalilzad thanked Pakistan for facilitating the process towards the mutual objective of peace in the region,” noted a post-meeting military statement.
Qureshi’s office quoted him as emphasizing the need for an early conclusion of U.S.-Taliban negotiations and peace deal “in the larger interest of the (Afghan) peace process and for preventing spoilers from playing a negative role.” The statement did not elaborate further.
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad issued a statement after Khalilzad’s meetings, saying he discussed U.S. efforts to facilitate a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan.
“He welcomed Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to support a reduction in violence that will pave the way for a U.S.-Taliban agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire in support of a sustainable peace.”
A senior Pakistani official privy to the discussions with Khalilzad told VOA the U.S.-Taliban negotiations have stalled because both sides continue to differ on the “definition of reduction in violence” and got bogged down because of persistent mutual “trust deficit.”
Since embarking on his Afghan peace mission in late 2018, Afghan-born veteran American diplomat Khalilzad has made frequent trips to Islamabad for mutual consultations and has credited Pakistan for facilitating the U.S.-Taliban talks.
The Pakistani military in particular is believed to have maintained close contacts with insurgent leaders living along with their families among nearly 3 million Afghan refugees still hosted by the neighboring country.
Pakistan was one of only three countries in the world that had recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan before it was toppled by a U.S.-led military invasion in 2001.