KABUL — Taliban and U.S. officials resumed peace talks Wednesday in Qatar for the first time since March, but the insurgent group continued to insist that it will not discuss any Afghan domestic issues until the two sides have agreed on the “full withdrawal” of foreign forces and on how to prevent other armed groups from using Afghanistan to do harm abroad.
Meanwhile, a U.S. government watchdog group warned in a report that a peace settlement could result in setbacks for human rights and women’s rights, threats to U.S. reconstruction investment, deterioration of national security and a revival of violence or discord.
“No matter how welcome peace would be, it can carry with it the seeds of unintended and unforeseen consequences,” the report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction said. Such “day after” risks, it said, “could frustrate the shared goal of a stable Afghanistan,” which respects the rule of law and is “at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
The report came at a time of ongoing Taliban attacks across the country and record-high civilian casualties of 3,800 last year. Despite the violence, the report said U.S. military officials had informed the watchdog group that they no longer track the level of government or Taliban control in all 400 Afghan districts.
A formal written explanation from the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, included in the report, said that officials now consider assessments of local Taliban and government strength to be “of limited decision-making value” and that such local data is often subjective. In the past, U.S. military officials have said focusing on insurgent strength in areas with larger populations is more useful.
But the report, signed by Special Inspector John Sopko, found that gauging a variety of local conditions has helped assess the overall state of the war. It said a “heightened sense of insecurity” had dominated the country this past winter as the Qatar talks continued. Sopko’s office has previously protested the U.S. military’s withholding of war casualty figures from the public.
Afghan officials publicly welcomed the start of a sixth round of U.S.-Taliban talks Wednesday, and the Taliban statement, emailed to the media, noted that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special peace envoy, had met Wednesday with Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and the head of its political office.
But the Taliban statement made it clear that no Afghans will participate in the talks and that the group has no intention of discussing any Afghan concerns or demands until the United States agrees on a “full” withdrawal of all foreign forces. The last round of talks ended with a draft framework of an agreement on the troop withdrawals but no concrete results. There are 14,000 U.S. troops in the country.
The Taliban does not recognize the government of President Ashraf Ghani as legitimate, and an effort by Kabul to send a cross-section of Afghan leaders to meet with the Taliban in Doha two weeks ago collapsed amid objections from the insurgents about the size and composition of the Afghan delegation.
In Kabul on Wednesday, a national gathering of more than 3,000 Afghans spent a third day trying to organize committees to debate the peace process and decide on a list of conditions the Afghan government should demand in talks with the Taliban. The conference, scheduled to end Thursday, appears to have made little concrete progress.
Many Afghans, especially women, have expressed fears that a U.S.-Taliban peace deal could jeopardize the freedoms and rights that have been protected under civilian rule for the past 18 years. There is widespread concern that the Taliban could renege on any promises and decide to reimpose the harsh form of Islam it enforced during five years in power.
The special inspector general’s report echoed many of those concerns, including a newly expanded list of post-peace “risks” that Afghan and U.S. officials should prepare for. The report listed “widespread insecurity,” poor police capacity, sluggish economic growth, drug trafficking and corruption, and the challenge of reintegrating Taliban fighters.