The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghans voice fears that the U.S. is undercutting them in deal with the Taliban 

Members of the Taliban negotiating delegation arrive for talks in Moscow in May. Talks in Qatar have since yielded a nearly complete deal with the United States that has sparked questions and concerns in Afghanistan. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

KABUL — For months, Afghans have been waiting anxiously to see whether negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban insurgents will lead to a lasting peace and a solid path to power-sharing or leave them bereft, facing revived conflict and a possible Taliban takeover.

Those concerns deepened Saturday as news spread that President Trump’s top peace negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, had presented him Friday with a nearly finished deal that would remove thousands of U.S. troops but had not locked in Taliban commitments to a cease-fire or political negotiations with Afghan officials.

Trump and senior aides discuss withdrawal from Afghanistan as talks with Taliban advance

President Ashraf Ghani, who has been left out of the U.S.-Taliban talks at the insistence of the insurgents, made no statements Saturday. His spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said Ghani had not yet been briefed on Friday’s developments but that his government would work with U.S. officials to achieve a “dignified and sustainable peace.”

Speaking at a news conference, Sediqqi noted that U.S. officials had assured Ghani that a U.S. troop withdrawal would be based on “conditions,” meaning only if the Taliban hold to their commitments. He said that if the insurgents are ready to stop violence and turn to political activity, “this can be a good deal for the Afghan people.”

Hours later, a bomb ripped through a crowded wedding hall in western Kabul, killing at least 38 people and wounding about 100, security officials said.

No group claimed responsibility for the blast, but it followed two recent bombing attacks in Kabul attributed to the Taliban. In one, a car bomb killed 45 people and injured 145. In the second, a bomb and gun attack on a political party’s office left 20 dead and more than 50 injured.

Guests at the wedding posted photos on social media showing bloodstained floors and overturned chairs and tables. Others posted messages saying a suicide bomber posing as a guest had detonated explosives in the crowded hall. Multistory wedding halls in Kabul often host multiple weddings in one night with several thousand guests.

Sediqqi tweeted after midnight that he was “devastated” by the news and added: “How is it possible to train a human and ask him to blow himself up inside a wedding?!! Why this enmity against innocent humans?”

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A variety of Afghans raised questions Saturday about the peace talks: Why had they been conducted in secret, and why was the Trump government in such a hurry to send U.S. forces home? What guarantees were there that the Taliban would sit down to talk with Afghan leaders and not sweep back into power once foreign forces leave?

“Nobody knows what has happened in these talks,” said Mohammed Arzam, 74, who was talking with friends outside a bakery. “Everyone wonders, could things go back to the way they were in Taliban time? Women were hit with hoses, and people lived like animals in cages. If the Americans go, what will stop them this time?’ ”

Raihana Azad, a legislator from rural Daikundi province, said Trump is hurrying to get the troops out “for the sake of his reelection, but it is a bad mistake.”

Azad added: “The Taliban cannot be trusted to hold up their side. The Americans came to help us build democracy and human rights. If they leave without a good peace deal, we will witness more horror.”

The key Taliban demand is that all U.S. military forces, now numbering about 14,000, will leave over an agreed period of time. The group’s stated goal is to become the dominant force in Afghan public life and replace the current democratic Islamic Republic with a theocratic Islamic Emirate. 

The key American demands have been that the Taliban renounce their ties with al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups, agree to a cease-fire and participate in follow-up negotiations with Afghan leaders to design a shared new governing system.

The agreement described by U.S. officials Friday chiefly covers the removal of U.S. troops and the Taliban commitment to cut ties with other extremist groups. It mentions a cease-fire and intra-Afghan talks to follow after a deal is signed, but does not contain a detailed cease-fire agreement or make clear whether the Taliban has agreed to negotiate with Afghan officials. 

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Analysts said the most critical part of the peace process will be the intra-Afghan talks. If a U.S.-Taliban deal is struck in Qatar, those talks are slated to be held in Oslo soon, with the goal of mapping out a political transition. But they are expected to be difficult, and they could be either helped or hurt by plans for presidential elections in late September.

“Every major transition in our past history has been disastrous, with violence and war or military coups,” said Haroun Mir, an independent Kabul-based analyst. “This time we have a government in place, but the Taliban don’t accept our constitution, our elections or our system. If they renege on their agreement to negotiate, the U.S. can’t just send its troops back here.”

Several Afghans raised another concern: What if some hardened Taliban commanders do not go along with a cease-fire pledge or other compromises agreed to in Qatar? What if the religious militia is more fractured and less vertically controlled than it appears?

Unforeseen violence could exacerbate such problems. On Friday, a younger brother of Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme Taliban leader, was reportedly killed in a bombing attack at a mosque in Quetta, a city in southwestern Pakistan where key Taliban leaders have lived for years.

In Wardak province southwest of Kabul, where the Taliban controls numerous districts, legislator Hameeda Akbari said local Taliban commanders told her they would not accept concessions made by Taliban negotiators and that they suspect some U.S. forces will stay. 

“We have deep concern that this so-called peace deal will bring a new era of crisis,” Akbari said. “Some Taliban foot soldiers believe their leaders are betraying them, and they may join other groups or form their own insurgency.”

Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, head of the Ghazni provincial council, said Afghans could not trust Taliban promises but that a well-designed peace process might draw the insurgents away from violence and into political life.

“Peace is the priority, but it must include the achievements of the past 18 years,” Faqiri said. “Many lives have been lost and much money spent to build a government and a republic. No one should give them away.”

Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report. 

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