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Afghanistan’s chequered history with Taliban peace talks

Reporting | - Posted: Jun 9, 2018 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Posted: Jun 9, 2018 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Afghanistan’s chequered history with Taliban peace talks

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

An unprecedented ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban has sparked hopes the move may open the door for a new push for peace talks in the bloody, nearly 17-year conflict.

The Taliban have long insisted on the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for peace talks — a major sticking point to kick-starting any potential negotiations.

Here’s a rundown of the fits and starts with past peace initiatives during the country’s long insurgency:

– The fall –

The US military invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, and force the Taliban from power within weeks. But by 2003 US attention is diverted to Iraq.

The Taliban and other Islamist groups retreat to their strongholds in the south and east of Afghanistan, from where they can easily travel to and from Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt. Slowly they begin to regroup.

– The resurgence –

In February 2007 the Taliban’s growing reach is brought home when insurgents attack a US base in Afghanistan as vice president Dick Cheney visits, killing 24 people.

US President Barack Obama orders a “surge” of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, but says withdrawals will begin in July 2011. The number of NATO-led forces rises to a peak of 150,000 in the summer of 2010.

In May of 2011 Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is finally killed by US special forces in Pakistan. The killing prompts calls for the war to end. Shortly after, Obama announces that 33,000 US troops will be withdrawn by the middle of 2012.

But hopes for talks are dampened when Burhanuddin Rabbani — a former president and then-president Hamid Karzai’s peace envoy — becomes the most senior politician to be killed in the conflict, in a September 2011 assassination blamed by Afghan officials on the Taliban.

– The talks –

The Taliban open an office in Qatar in June 2013 following secret back-channel negotiations with US officials in a first move towards a possible peace deal.

However, the initiative collapses a month later after they enrage Karzai by styling themselves as the unofficial embassy for a government-in-exile.

In December 2014, NATO formally ends its combat mission in Afghanistan, handing over security to beleaguered Afghan forces struggling with soaring casualties and desertion.

But hopes are raised when direct peace talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban — the first of the conflict — begin in Pakistan in July 2015.

The shock revelation that Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder, had died two years earlier, with the group covering up his death, quickly derails the talks.

– The ceasefire? –

In the following years security deteriorates in Afghanistan, particularly Kabul, with the nascent Islamic State group adding to the challenges faced by struggling security forces.

The capital becomes the deadliest place in the country for civilians as casualties surge.

In February this year Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani unveils a plan to open peace talks with the Taliban, including eventually recognising them as a political party. He floats a ceasefire as part of the plan.

It is the most comprehensive offer by Kabul, but it is snubbed by the Taliban, who view Ghani’s government as illegitimate, and instead step up attacks.

On May 31 the Pentagon says that senior Afghan officials are negotiating with the Taliban over a ceasefire.

Days later, on June 7, Ghani announces what appears to be a unilateral ceasefire with the Taliban for Eid, the holiday that caps off Ramadan, though he says operations against other groups including IS will continue.

The Taliban do not immediately respond, and analysts are sceptical, as social media is flooded with Afghans calling on the insurgents to agree. NATO and US officials say they hope the move can lead to a breakthrough.

By Saturday the Taliban announce their own unprecedented ceasefire for the first three days of Eid. The statement does not respond directly to Ghani, but the dates overlap.

The moves are greeted with caution by many, but also relief by war-weary civilians and Afghan officials. A Western analyst in Kabul tells AFP they are a “confidence-building measure”.

Whether they lead to something bigger remains to be seen.


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