DOHA - The United States has resumed peace talks with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar, three months after President Donald Trump abruptly halted diplomatic efforts that could end the US’ longest war.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Saturday held the first official talks since September with the Afghan group in Qatar’s capital, Doha, a US State Department spokesperson said.

The renewed talks were expected to pave the way for direct talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul and, ultimately, a possible peace agreement after more than 18 years of war.

“The US rejoined talks today in Doha. The focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire,” said the spokesperson.

Confirming the resumption of talks in a tweet, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the dialogue had restarted from where it was halted. “Talks focused on the signing of an agreement and issues concerning it,” he added. “Negotiations will resume tomorrow (Sunday).”

Anas Haqqani, brother to the Taliban’s deputy leader, participated in the talks, the Taliban spokesman confirmed.

Haqqani was released from Afghan government custody last month as part of a prisoner swap that saw an American academic and his Australian colleague freed.

The meetings in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office, follow several days of talks in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, where Khalilzad met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with Ghani, calling him a “US puppet”.

The Qatari government played host to the US-Taliban dialogue before it was halted by President Trump on Sept 7.

The disruption in the talks had come at a crucial stage when both sides were believed to have come close to concluding an agreement that could have set the stage for a phased withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan.

In return, the deal would have outlined the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees in insurgent-controlled Afghan areas and given assurances the rebels would immediately engage in intra-Afghan negotiations for permanently ending decades of hostilities in the country.

The Taliban said their fighters also would have observed a ceasefire with foreign troops in areas of troop withdrawal. However, the Taliban insisted matters related to cessation of hostilities with Afghan security forces would only be on the agenda when Taliban-Afghan negotiations are launched. The insurgents are reluctant to observe a nationwide ceasefire, fearing it would undermine their military leverage.

 

 

Analysts are skeptical whether Khalilzad and his team would be able to overcome the challenges.

Gen John Nicholson, a former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, on Friday cautioned against entering into a deal with the Taliban that does not bind the insurgents to cease nationwide hostilities or reduce the level of violence. The retired four-star general, who headed the military coalition until September 2018, spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Meridian International Center, a nonpartisan, public diplomacy organisation in Washington.

“The ceasefire on the part of the Taliban, as some of them have said publicly, reduces their leverage. Well, a troop withdrawal on the part of the coalition reduces our military leverage,” Nicholson noted. “To simply negotiate a deal that allows for the withdrawal of international forces and some sort of renunciation of terrorism, in my view, will not last. And therefore it would not protect our security interest nor will it protect the gains that need to be preserved inside Afghanistan,” the general said.

Nicholson insisted in some US public discourse that the costs of the Afghan war are inflated. He said the true cost of the Afghan war for the United States is less.

“We were spending about $25 billion a year inside the country when we had less than 14,000 troops, whereas the number you see talked about in terms of cost today are more than double that.”

Nicholson said the presence of a US counterterrorism mission in post-withdrawal Afghanistan must also be part of the negotiations with the Taliban to deter future terrorist attacks on America.

 

During a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to a US military base in Afghanistan last month, Trump said the Taliban “wants to make a deal”.

Even during the stall in talks, Khalilzad has in recent weeks made a whistle-stop tour of nations with a stake in Afghan peace, including Pakistan. He recently arranged a captive swap in which the Taliban released an American and an Australian academic whom they had held hostage for three years.

Meanwhile, the US military in its daily report said overnight on Saturday that US air attacks killed 37 members of the armed group and operations by the Afghan National Security Forces killed 22 other rebels.

The Taliban, which now holds sway over nearly half of Afghanistan, have continued to carry out near-daily attacks against military outposts throughout the country.

Trump has expressed frustration with the US’ longest war, repeatedly saying he wants to bring the estimated 12,000 American soldiers home and calling on Afghanistan’s own police and military to step up.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government is embroiled in a fresh election standoff. Presidential polls on September 28 ended in accusations of misconduct and corruption, with no results yet announced.

Repeat leading contender and Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has challenged the recounting of several hundred thousand ballots, accusing his opponent Ghani of trying to manipulate the tally.

Ghani leads the Afghan government with Abdullah in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the US after the presidential election in 2014 was so deeply mired in corruption that a clear winner could not be determined.