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What to Know as Troubled Afghan Peace Talks Enter a New Phase

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KABUL, Afghanistan — After 4 a long time of grinding fight in Afghanistan, peace negotiations between the Afghan authorities and the Taliban have raised at the very least a chance that the lengthy cycle of violence would possibly sometime finish.

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However that milestone is a great distance off. The newest spherical of discussions, which started in September, have been riddled with bureaucratic hangups and monthslong debates over minor points.

And although these talks resulted in an agreement on the principles and procedures that may information the following spherical of peace negotiations, they got here with a worth. Whereas the 2 sides met in Doha, Qatar, bloodletting on battlefields and in Afghan cities surged.

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Now with peace talks scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 5, the small print of what’s being negotiated subsequent stay murky.

Whereas each the Afghan authorities and the Taliban have mentioned they won’t publicly launch their lists of priorities for the following spherical of negotiations, right here’s what safety analysts, researchers, and authorities and Taliban officers count on to be on the docket — and what hurdles these talks should overcome.

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The final word aim of the negotiations is the creation of a political street map for a future authorities. The top of the federal government negotiation crew, Masoom Stanikzai, mentioned Wednesday {that a} cease-fire could be the delegation’s prime precedence. The Taliban, who’ve used assaults towards safety forces and civilians as leverage, search as a substitute to barter a type of governance based mostly on strict Islamic regulation earlier than discussing any cease-fire.

However getting to those bigger basic points won’t be simple, as the 2 sides stay caught on the that means of fundamental phrases like “cease-fire” and “Islamic.” There are numerous types of cease-fire, from everlasting and nationwide to partial and conditional, but the general public portion of the February settlement between the United States and the Taliban calling for the entire withdrawal of American troops mentions however doesn’t particularly mandate or totally outline what it ought to appear to be.

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The Taliban additionally refuse to specify what they imply by “Islamic,” and the federal government’s personal insistence on an “Islamic” republic has been a topic of intense debate.

“The Taliban say they need an Islamic system however they don’t specify what sort,” mentioned Abdul Haifiz Mansoor, a member of Afghanistan’s negotiating crew, mentioning that there are practically as many methods as there are Islamic international locations.

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Additionally complicating the following spherical of talks is a Taliban demand that the federal government launch extra Taliban prisoners. The federal government’s launch of greater than 5,000 prisoners eliminated the final impediment to negotiations in September, however President Ashraf Ghani has up to now refused to launch any others.

Either side exploited violence on the bottom in Afghanistan for leverage throughout negotiations in Doha, however the Taliban have been extra aggressive of their assaults than the federal government, whose troops have a tendency to remain on bases and at checkpoints, responding to persistent assaults.

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The killing of safety pressure members and civilians surged whereas talks have been underway this fall, according to a New York Times tally, earlier than dropping as soon as Afghan authorities and Taliban negotiators introduced in early December that they’d reached an settlement on the procedures for future talks, although chilly climate possible additionally contributed to the decline. No less than 429 pro-government forces have been killed in September, and at the very least 212 civilians have been in October — the worst tolls in every class in additional than a yr.

“Killing and bloodshed have reached new peaks,” mentioned Atiqullah Amarkhel, a navy analyst in Kabul. “What sort of will for peace is that this?”

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Ibraheem Bahiss, an unbiased Afghan analysis analyst, mentioned the Taliban are pursuing two tracks concurrently: violence and negotiation.

“Their purpose is to get into energy and have a specific sort of presidency system,” Mr. Bahiss mentioned. “Whether or not they obtain it by means of talks or by means of combating, each entail prices they’re prepared to bear.”

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Although the Taliban have enormously diminished direct assaults on U.S. forces since February, the rebel group has inexorably expanded the territory it controls by besieging native safety forces.

In response, the Individuals have launched airstrikes in situations the place Afghan troops have been underneath excessive duress throughout Taliban onslaughts. A Taliban official framed the group’s ranges of violence as a direct response to airstrikes by the USA, or to navy and ill-received diplomatic strikes by the Afghan authorities.

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U.S. airstrikes salvaged the crumpling defenses of Afghan items in Kandahar and Helmand provinces this fall, exposing, as soon as extra, deficiencies in Afghan floor and air forces which can be underneath fixed assault. The forces’ slumping morale has drawn rising concern from Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission within the nation, in response to U.S. officers.

On the identical time, American troop numbers have dropped from about 12,000 in February to a projected 2,500 by mid-January, with an entire withdrawal deliberate by Could if the settlement holds. That has left Afghan officers uncertain of how their forces can maintain floor with out American assist.

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The significance of the talks to the USA was underscored in November, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Doha and met with negotiators, and once more in mid-December, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark A. Milley, did the identical.

A Pentagon assertion mentioned Common Milley had pressed the Taliban for “a direct discount of violence,” a time period American officers have used a number of occasions this yr that’s open to a variety of interpretations. U.S. officers try to ascertain an equilibrium on the battlefield.

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Either side are additionally ready to see whether or not President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will honor the troop withdrawal schedule or, conceivably, transfer to renegotiate the complete deal.

If Mr. Biden decides to go away a residual American navy counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan after Could 2021, as some American lawmakers are proposing, Mr. Bahiss mentioned, “the Taliban have made it clear that may nullify the complete settlement.”

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Given the recriminations and suspicions in Doha, some Afghan analysts concern the talks may stay deadlocked for months.

“Distrust between the 2 sides has led to a rise in violence, however nothing has been carried out to eradicate that distrust,” mentioned Syed Akbar Agha, a former chief of the Taliban’s Jaish-ul-Muslimeen group.

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That might indefinitely delay critical makes an attempt to deal with core authorities issues like human rights, a free press, rights for ladies and spiritual minorities, and democratic elections, amongst others.

Taliban negotiators have mentioned they assist girls’s rights, for instance, however solely underneath strict Islamic regulation. Many analysts interpret that to imply the identical harsh oppression of girls practiced by the Taliban once they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

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The deeply divided authorities in Kabul additionally worries that the Taliban will attempt to run out the clock till all American forces go away, whereas the Taliban contend that Mr. Ghani, who was re-elected in a bitterly disputed election final spring, is stalling to serve out his five-year time period. If some type of authorities of nationwide unity or a transitional authorities have been agreed upon, Mr. Ghani could be unlikely to proceed as president.

One other complication is division throughout the Taliban, from hard-line commanders in Afghanistan to political negotiators in Doha’s accommodations. Some Taliban factions consider they need to battle and defeat the Individuals and the Afghan authorities, not negotiate with them.

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Mr. Agha, the previous Taliban chief, mentioned little progress was possible except an neutral mediator emerged who may break down the shortage of belief in Doha.

“If not,” he mentioned, “I don’t assume the following spherical of talks will finish with a constructive consequence.”

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Some analysts concern an much more ominous final result. Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan authorities adviser, mentioned, “One factor is obvious — with out a settlement, we’re headed for a civil struggle.”

Najim Rahim, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul.

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