Fractured Afghan peace process resumes as common enemy is weakened

US envoy credits American, Afghan and Taliban forces for big gains against ISIS

Afghan's President  Ashraf Ghani  speaks to US soldiers as US President Donald Trump listens  during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. / AFP / Olivier Douliery

President Donald Trump’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day put cancelled negotiations between the US and the Taliban back on the agenda.

But divisions remain between Washington, the Taliban and the government in Kabul, which was left out of earlier negotiations.

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Wednesday as the State Department announced he would next travel to Doha.

There, Mr Khalilzad would meet the Taliban “to discuss steps that could lead to intra-Afghan negotiations and a peaceful settlement of the war, specifically a reduction in violence that leads to a ceasefire”.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met Mr Khalilzad and discussed issues including the Taliban's sanctuaries outside Afghanistan and a ceasefire, presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told The National.

Mr Trump, while visiting troops at the Bagram air base, about an hour north of Kabul, said the Taliban “didn’t want to do a ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire, I believe”.

But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The National on Thursday that "no decision has yet been made on the ceasefire".

Previous negotiations between the US and the Taliban focused on a peace deal involving an American troop withdrawal, among other conditions, paving the way for eventual Afghan talks that would include the government.

Mr Khalilzad on Wednesday praised the efforts of the US, Afghan government and the Taliban after major gains against ISIS in Nangarhar, the eastern province bordering Pakistan, which was the group’s main base.

“Effective operations by US Coalition and Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS losing territory and fighters," he said on Twitter.

"Hundreds surrendered. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress."

Hundreds of ISIS fighters have surrendered to the government in Nangarhar in recent weeks, with the presidential palace putting their remaining number at “below 300”, down from several thousand this year.

“Daesh’s backbone has been broken,” Mr Ghani declared in late November.

Smaller ISIS cells remain throughout Afghanistan and the group has staged large-scale attacks across Kabul. In one of the most brutal attacks this year, an ISIS suicide bomber killed at least 60 people at a wedding celebration in August.

Although the US, Afghan government and Taliban have been fighting ISIS, the Taliban denied there was any collaboration.

“The Kabul administration did not defeat IS, and residents of Nangarhar have witnessed this too,” Zabiullah Mujahid said on WhatsApp.

He claimed the victory was achieved by “the heroes of the mujahideen”.

“The Kabul administration and their foreign partners had difficulties when it came to their operations against IS, which prolonged the operation,” Mr Mujahid said.

While the presidential palace declined to comment on Mr Khalilzad’s tweet, Mr Ghani’s spokesman said the Afghan security forces’ latest successes against ISIS were "unprecedented".

“The Taliban have provided a breeding ground for many terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” Mr Seddiqi said.

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2019, Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. Afghan farmer Gulnar Malik had seen her share of hardships as war ravaged her country over four decades -- but nothing prepared the mother of five for the arrival of the Islamic State group. - TO GO WITH: Afghanistan conflict IS, FOCUS by Noorullah Shirzada
 / AFP / NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / TO GO WITH: Afghanistan conflict IS, FOCUS by Noorullah Shirzada

A US army spokesman did not respond when asked for comment.

Eighteen years of conflict since the 2001 US-led invasion have devastated much of Afghanistan and taken a heavy toll on its people.

The UN documented 8,239 civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2019, including 2,563 deaths.

The result of the presidential election two months ago still has not been declared, with candidates accusing each other of fraud.

Despite the breakdown in negotiations, the US and Taliban organised a prisoner swap, accompanied by a partial and unofficial ceasefire in Zabul province to the south of Kabul.

The Taliban released American hostage Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, university professors captured in Kabul, in exchange for Anas Haqqani and other senior members of the group.

Mr Trump, who cancelled talks with the Taliban on Twitter in September, said the group wants a deal “very badly”.

“For a period of time, we’ve been working to make a deal," he said during his visit to Afghanistan.

"We’ve made tremendous progress over the last six months and at the same time we’ve been drawing down our troops."

Afghanistan celebrated 100 years of independence this year but, between undeclared election results and stalled peace talks, the nation is in limbo.

“People are anxious,” says Masiullah Mohammad, a business owner in Kabul. “Many have stopped purchasing houses or planning ahead.

"Everything is stalled because there is so much uncertainty, so much violence. We need clarity – and peace.”