Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership agreed it wanted a deal with the United States. But some of the leaders were in more of a hurry than others.
Even before U.S. President Donald Trump canceled talks with the Taliban last weekend, its negotiators argued with their Council of Leaders, or shura, about whether or not to attend the meeting.
Taliban officials who know about the talks say the Council of Leaders was against sending a negotiating team to Camp David, a country home of U.S presidents. Some Taliban leaders criticized the negotiators who wanted to go.
The militant Islamic group has been holding talks with U.S. representatives for over a year in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The Taliban has a political office in Doha. The group calls itself The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Suhail Shaheen is a spokesman for the Doha office. He told the Taliban Al-Emarah website this week that U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had invited Taliban negotiators to Camp David in late August.
The Taliban agreed. Then it delayed. Taliban members demanded the deal be announced first by Qatar. They wanted a signing ceremony witnessed by the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Russia, China and other countries. The delay reportedly followed the shura’s rejection and criticism of the negotiators.
Taliban representatives spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they did not have permission to discuss the situation with reporters.
Several months earlier, the shura opposed an offer to give the U.S. military 14 months to withdraw 14,000 troops from Afghanistan. The offer was the idea of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the chief negotiator and co-founder of the Taliban. The shura told Baradar it did not agree with the suggested withdrawal date. They also told him he could not make decisions without their approval.
Taliban officials who had knowledge of both the negotiating team and the shura said that the Taliban leadership debated every part of the agreement. They also said the negotiating team either got the shura to agree or accept its decisions.
“The Taliban mobilized at the highest levels to support negotiations with the U.S.,” said Michael Kugelman. He is deputy director of the Asia Program at The Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C. “Senior Taliban officials…helped lead (the talks.)”
“There may be divisions within the Taliban, but they presented a relatively common front in the negotiating process. That’s more than one can say for the Afghan government, or even the Trump administration,” Kugelman added.
Baradar, the lead negotiator, has been campaigning for a peace deal in Afghanistan even before the U.S. government was willing to open talks. As far back as 2010, he had secretly opened peace talks with Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai. When Pakistan learned of this, Baradar was arrested in a raid carried out with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He spent eight years in a Pakistani jail. This was his punishment for trying to open peace talks that did not include Pakistan.
Karzai had told The Associated Press he asked both Pakistan and the United States to release Baradar, but was told no. The first secret contacts between the Taliban and the U.S. government started in 2013.
Today the Taliban are in their strongest position in Afghanistan since they were removed from power in 2001. They now have control over more than half the country. Nearly every day, Taliban forces carry out a deadly attack.
Khalilzad’s year-long peace effort has been the U.S. government’s strongest push for peace. The discussions include the Taliban, the Afghan government, leading Afghans and the governments of neighboring countries.
Some of the countries have been accused of trying to interfere with Afghanistan. These include Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
The talks should start again soon or the progress that Khalilzad made will be lost, warned Andrew Wilder. He is the Asia Programs’ vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Wilder fears that Afghanistan’s neighbors could begin to again interfere or cause problems. If the U.S. withdraws, he said, “Pakistan may decide that it’s more important than ever to support a proxy like the Taliban to protect Pakistan’s…interests in Afghanistan.”
For now, the Taliban has been unapologetic about the daily attacks that have killed many civilians — and which have been blamed for the talks’ collapse.
Trump claimed earlier this week that the Taliban had later expressed regret.
Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, did not express regret. He argued that the U.S. military has also continued its operations in Afghanistan during the peace talks. “There was no cease-fire and the agreement was not signed,” he added.
However, it appears the two sides are still talking, even if it is just to ask the other what it all means.
“We have contacted them (U.S. officials) and they too have (contacted) us,” Shaheen said, adding that he asked for more information about Trump’s decision. “We are hopeful of a response and are waiting for their response.”
The Trump administration still wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. While Trump said the peace talks were “dead,” he also said that the troops have become policemen in Afghanistan and that is not their job.
“The Taliban are in a good place right now,” said Kugelman. They want a U.S. troop withdrawal, he said, adding that “unlike the U.S. they’re in no rush to get one.”
I’m Anne Ball. And I'm Bryan Lynn.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in this Story
mobilize – v. to move or to get ready
proxy – n. a substitute for a peson or thing
rush – n. to go quickly, to hurry