Peace Process Update
Nearly Half of the U.S. Troop Withdrawal is Complete; Full Withdrawal planned in July; The Taliban Intensify Violence Amid The Uncertain Fate of the Peace Talks; Speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani Visits Pakistan to Build Regional Consensus
According to U.S. military officials, American and NATO troops are expected to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan by mid-July, nearly two months ahead of the originally planned September 11th target. U.S. Central Command said in a statement this week that nearly half of U.S. troops have withdrawn.
Emboldened by the rapid withdrawal of international forces, the Taliban have intensified their violence against the Afghan military and civilians. There has been a huge spike in bombings and clashes with the Afghan military in the past month. The insurgent group has captured four districts in three different provinces, but the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are contesting those areas. On the diplomatic front, the intra-Afghan talks are no closer to reaching a political settlement. According to VOA news, the peace negotiations are set to resume this week in Doha, but no details have been released. The Taliban announced they will attend the Istanbul summit but requested that it be a short low-level meeting where no substantives issues are discussed. Amid the speculation that the U.S. is seeking support from neighboring countries to establish a base of operations, the Taliban issued a statement calling on Afghanistan’s neighbors not to allow the presence of a U.S. military base. “God forbid such a step is taken, it will be a great historic mistake and disgrace, its shame will go in history,” said the statement. “As we have repeatedly assured others our soil will not be used against anyone’s security, we urge others not to use its soil and airspace against our country.”
Having denounced the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw troops after the May 1st deadline agreed to by the Trump administration, the insurgent group has publicly said that it will not attend any peace talks until all foreign troops have left the country. In private, however, the Taliban reportedly demanded two major concessions in order to resume any substantive peace-related talks: the release of around 7,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails and the removal of their leaders from the U.S. and U.N. sanctions lists, arguing that the U.S. pledged to deliver on these commitments in the February 2020 pact with the insurgent group.
At the same time concerns grow that the ANDSF will not be able to defend their country without continued support from the U.S. in the aftermath of the troop withdrawal. Currently, the Afghan military, particularly the Afghan Air Force remains largely dependent on the U.S. for maintenance and training, as well as combat air support when the forces come under attack. But, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told a House hearing this week that it would be overly pessimistic to think that the Afghan government or ANDSF will be immediately overrun by the Taliban once the U.S.-led Coalition departs the country. “I personally believe that the statements that their forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” he said. Khalilzad was responding to the doubts of many Congress members who expressed deep concerns that President Joe Biden’s decision to fully withdraw by September will lead to chaos and intensified civil war.
The top U.S. commander for the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said that the Afghan military has a “fighting chance” to be successful and to defend their country once the U.S. leaves. “It’s time for the Afghan military to stand up and show that they can fight alone,” declared McKenzie. “I think it’s going to be a very taxing time for them. I think certainly there is a path for them to preserve what they have now. The risk is high. I don’t want to minimize that.” Gen. McKenzie also stated that he would make recommendations to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in early June about how to monitor and fight terrorist groups in Afghanistan from outside its borders after the departure of all American troops.
Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Parliament, Mir Rahman Rahmani, visited Pakistan to attend a two-day conference of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Economic Cooperation Organization (PAECO). During his visit, Speaker Rahmani met with several high-ranking Pakistani government officials, Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Chairman of National Assembly of Azerbaijan, and other regional leaders to discuss regional security issues, the Afghan peace process, and enhancement of economic, trade, and transit ties. As a great sign of achievement for the country, Afghanistan officially became a permanent member of PAECO with the Speaker signing the charter.