Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Taliban open to more peace talks after surprise Trump visit

Talks collapsed in September but militant group said it was open to resumption

A day after the US president visited American troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban have said they are ready to start the stalled peace talks with Washington.

President Donald Trump said during his visit to troops to mark Thanksgiving that he believes the militant group will agree to a ceasefire, three months after talks collapsed without a deal.

Mr Trump's first visit to Afghanistan since becoming president came a week after a prisoner swap between Washington and Kabul that raised hopes for a long-elusive peace deal to end the 18-year war.

Last Tuesday, the Taliban freed an American and an Australian held hostage since 2016 in exchange for three top Taliban figures. The insurgent group said the swap could help rekindle peace negotiations.

"The Taliban wants to make a deal and we are meeting with them," Mr Trump told reporters after arriving in Afghanistan on Thursday.

"We say it has to be a ceasefire and they didn't want to do a ceasefire and now they want to do a ceasefire, I believe. It will probably work out that way," he said.

Mr Trump cancelled peace negotiations in September after the militant group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline Islamist insurgent group, said on Friday they were "ready to restart the talks".

"Our stance is still the same. If peace talks start, it will be resumed from the stage where it had stopped," Mujahid said.

Taliban leaders have said the group has been holding meetings with senior US officials in Doha since last weekend, adding they could soon resume formal peace talks.

"We are hoping that Trump's visit to Afghanistan will prove that he is serious to start talks again. We don't think he has not much of a choice," said a senior Taliban commander on conditions of anonymity.

Trump did not answer reporters' questions when he returned on Friday morning to Florida, where he is spending the US Thanksgiving holiday weekend away from Washington.

Afghan policemen in riot gear sit in front of a mural. AP
Afghan policemen in riot gear sit in front of a mural. AP

Mr Trump said repeatedly during campaigning that he would bring US troops home from Afghanistan and is openly critical of American overseas deployments.

There are currently about 13,000 US forces as well as thousands of other Nato troops in Afghanistan, 18 years after a US-led coalition invaded the country following the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict.

A draft accord agreed in September would have thousands of American troops withdrawn in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Still, many US officials doubt the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent Al Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil.

Kabul has also expressed alarm at the deal, to which they are not a party, for fear it will see the US abandoning the government. Heavily reliant on international military support, the government will struggle to maintain control of the country if US and Nato troops leave without a clear agreement with the Taliban to stop the fighting.

Although the US has stopped reporting how much territory is under Taliban control, on the last count the group held sway in at least 50 per cent of the country.

The government and the Taliban would need to hold their own dialogue to hash out terms of their future relationship. This in term has alarmed some activists and civil society groups who say that a return of the hardline Taliban officials could spell doom to hard one rights for women and free speech.

The bloody Afghan war continues to claim thousands of lives every year. Last week, separate explosions in the country’s north killed at dozens of people, mostly women and young girls.

A roadside bomb struck a civilian vehicle going to a wedding Wednesday evening, killing at least 15 people including six women, six girls and two infants, as well as the male driver, according to Nasrat Rahimi, an Interior Ministry spokesman. He said two other civilians were wounded in the blast in northeastern Kunduz province.

Hours later, a gunfight and explosion at a security checkpoint killed at least one policeman, said Mohammad Nooragha Faizi, a police spokesman in northern Sari Pul province.

He said militants in a vehicle carrying explosives were stopped at the checkpoint Thursday morning, then opened fire to cover their escape. Mr Faizi said they apparently detonated the explosives remotely after getting away, although an investigation was ongoing.

The Interior Ministry blames the Taliban for the two attacks. The insurgent group has not commented.

A statement from the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he met US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley in Kabul on Thursday. The US military official reportedly reassured him that America remained committed to fighting terrorism.

Updated: December 2, 2019 03:51 AM

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