US Rules Out Troops Pullout From Afghanistan and Direct Talks With Taliban

A senior US envoy has said the Taliban could not expect direct talks with the US as had happened in the case of North Korea.

The Taliban are the stumbling block to the peace process, the Trump administration alleged on Friday, ruling out direct talks with it unless the militant leaders engaged with the elected Afghan government. In an apparent response to a recent letter from the Taliban to the US, the Trump team also ruled out withdrawing troops from Afghanistan – a precondition set by the rebels for talks.

America’s senior diplomat for South and Central Asia said the US was in Afghanistan at the request of its government and people and therefore would stay there to make sure the country did not become a safe haven for terrorists again.

“The recent Taliban letter to the people of the United States, I believe, misses the point. For eight years, the US has been prepared to support a peace process, but we cannot be a substitute for the Afghan people in the Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban,” Alice Wells remarked.

Speaking at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a Congress-supported think-tank, she said: “The Taliban were at war with the Afghan people long before US military operations began in 2001. Now obviously the US has a direct interest in the resolution of this conflict and the Taliban have frequently stated the need for all foreign troops to depart Afghanistan is a precondition for negotiations.”

“We are in Afghanistan as a guest of a sovereign Afghan government that’s recognized by the UN and the international community, with our presence enshrined in the strategic partnership agreement and a bilateral security agreement,” she added.

She explained that the US would continue its mission so long as the independent Afghan government agreed to host and work with the Americans, with nearly 15,000 troops supporting combat against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan, which is becoming one of the longest in world history, reaches its 6,000th day on Monday, when it will have ground on for substantially more than four times longer than U.S. involvement in World War II from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day (1,365 days).

Responding to a question, Ms. Wells said the Taliban could not expect direct talks with the US as had happened in the case of North Korea. There was no comparison between North Korea and Afghanistan, the diplomat argued.

Wells noted North and South Korea had spoken to each other in advance of the president’s offer to engage in the conversation.

“So, what we’re looking for in Afghanistan is a fundamental recognition that in an insurgency, the insurgents and the government that is ruling need to engage in a conversation with one another as well as with other interested parties to that settlement. We have been very consistent in this approach,” Wells said.

President Ashraf Ghani recently concluded the second Kabul Process conference, laying out some important principles in his remarks about the implementation of a peace process that would require the support of the international community.

“There was no way to walk away from Afghanistan even in a time of peace. But I can certainly assure you we understand how difficult it is and how essential it is to the success of the overall effort. Certainly, it’s only going to be when we see the success of the stabilization of Afghanistan that we in the international community can draw the confidence that the level of our presence is not required,” Wells said.

The Afghan government’s ability to manage its own security and territory in a responsible fashion would all feed into the international assessment of how to structure future relations with Afghanistan, she added.

Accusing the Taliban of being indifferent to the Afghan people, she believed it was time for the conflict to end. “There’s a way to end this conflict. There’s a will to end this conflict. There’s international support to this. It’s the Taliban who are the stumbling block to peace.”

The diplomat said it was up to the Taliban leaders to respond to this serious offer of talks from Ghani. The US supported Ghani’s move and was prepared to facilitate it, the official explained. Wells said when it came to the United States, its conditions-based South Asia strategy ensured the Taliban could not win on the battlefield, but it recognized that a resolution to the conflict would be through a negotiated settlement.

One of Washington’s closest watchers of the Afghanistan conflict, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last month that the administration has made major improvements in military tactics and plans for developing Afghan forces but has “done nothing to deal with civil and political stability.” That challenge is expected to come into clearer focus with the approach of parliamentary elections planned for July.

The administration “not only faces a deteriorating security situation, it has no clear political, governance, or economic strategy to produce Afghan stability,” Cordesman said. In his view, the U.S. military has been assigned a “mission impossible” in Afghanistan.

The war, which began in October 2001, is going as well as the U.S. had hoped seven months after President Donald Trump announced a new, more aggressive strategy is not clear. The picture may be clearer once the traditionally most intensive fighting season begins in April or May. Over the winter, American and Afghan warplanes have focused on attacking illicit drug facilities that are a source of Taliban revenue.

When Trump announced in August that he was ordering a new approach to the war, he said he realized “the American people are weary of war without victory.” He said his instinct was to pull out, but that after consulting with aides, he decided to seek “an honorable and enduring outcome.” He said that meant committing more resources to the war, giving commanders in the field more authority and staying in Afghanistan for as long as it takes.

A decade ago, seven years after the war began on Oct. 7, 2001, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. objective was the creation of a strong central government. When he was asked whether Afghanistan had ever had one, he answered without hesitation: “No.” Which is still true.

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