The appointment of two anti-Taliban security chiefs, the US decision to withdraw troops, and a Taliban commander killed in an air strike send 'confusing signs' about the peace talks.

An Afghan man looks out the broken window at the site of a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 29, 2018.
An Afghan man looks out the broken window at the site of a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 29, 2018. (Reuters)

Through Afghanistan’s seventeen years of war, the Taliban have rejected offers for peace talks, whether from the government or elsewhere. That changed when the group showed up for peace talks for the first time in Russia this November. 

The Afghan Taliban’s participation raised hopes for a long-expected mutual effort towards a potential truce deal that the US had been pushing for. 

Less than one month later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, appointed two anti-Taliban veterans as security chiefs - a move that could have jeopardised the talks.  

Is Ghani sidelining peace efforts?

Kamal Alam, a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) tells TRT World that “Ghani has wrong-footed the Americans” by replacing the security chiefs at a critical stage of Afghanistan's war. 

Both of the men, Acting Minister of Defence Asadullah Khalid and Acting Minister of Interior Amrullah Saleh have previously served as spy chiefs and have been opponents of the Afghan president’s policies, especially regarding the management of the ongoing war. 

They also have been strong critics of  Pakistan, who they accuse of supporting Taliban, the strongest armed group in Afghanistan, toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001. 

Though agreeing to participate in the peace process, the Taliban insisted on direct formal talks only with representatives from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US - and not the Afghan government. Yet, before Ghani’s new security chiefs announcement, Afghan officials said they were hopeful that two sides would eventually talk. 

But Alam says Afghans are not happy or consulted properly. 

“It's an American and Pakistani led process to be clear,” he says pointing out that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week that they brought the Taliban to the negotiation table. Pakistan earlier said US President Donald Trump asked Islamabad’s help for peace talks.

“Talking to the Taliban, especially at this rushed pace, is not in Kabul’s interest.” 

Ghani is expected to run for re-election next October. Ghani has stated that more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers had been killed since 2015 - since the US handed security over to Afghans. 

While the Afghan government says its offer for peace talks is unconditional, the Afghan Taliban has been demanding that international forces pull-out from the country as a pre-condition.

In a surprise decision, the US on December 21 announced its plans to withdraw more than 5,000 of its less than 9,000 troops from Afghanistan, raising concerns that the move could strengthen the Taliban in the country. Former US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who defended keeping US troops in Afghanistan resigned shortly after the decision.

Bill Roggio, a journalist and terror analyst speculated that the Taliban saw the US troops’ withdrawal forthcoming as it has been requesting, that’s why it accepted to ‘compromise’ by accepting to take part in the peace talks.

It’s not clear how the US will proceed with the withdrawal, or if the air strikes will continue while Washington pushes for peace talks. In early December a senior Taliban commander Abdul Manan was killed by a US air strike in southern Helmand Province after three American service members had been killed in a week. 

Alam says the US killing of the commander has been “only a tactical move, not strategic,” as “they’re expendable assets” for Taliban. 

He anticipates that both the Taliban’s and the Afghan government's interest in peace talks at the moment is not necessarily about reaching a deal. 

For the Taliban the motivation is “to be relevant, or if you believe the argument, that Pakistan controls them,” 

For him, if the peace process could realistically survive under these circumstances, amid appointment of anti-Taliban security chiefs and ongoing US air strikes, is a question which is tough to answer. 

“The signs are confusing. Trump wants to leave, Pentagon wants to stay,” he says. But he is sure of one thing: “A peace or real progress in talks is impossible until a new Afghan president in 2019. Anything else is cosmetic - to please Trump.”