Afghan turmoil intensifies as US withdrawal hits 95%

NEW YORK – It was a grueling weekend for Zalmay Khalilzad.

The 70-year-old leading man in the Biden administration for the stabilization of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal had seen his efforts of several months almost bear fruit. The peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government was back on track, although both sides halted before hostilities ceased.

But with the Taliban’s rapid progress across the country and the takeover of vital border crossings, coupled with reports of destroyed infrastructure and atrocities committed against prisoners and civilians by both sides, Khalilzad would settle for a modest but significant victory: a rare joint statement issued by the Taliban and Kabul, agreeing to continue talks. The goal of a ceasefire on the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which began on Tuesday, has not been met.

As the United States remains committed to leaving Afghanistan completely by August 31, Khalilzad’s mission has become even more urgent. The US central command announced Tuesday that 95% of the withdrawal, which the Pentagon calls “retrograde”, had already been completed.

The update came amid turbulent days for Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Khalilzad had little time to savor even his minor victory. Just hours after Sunday’s joint statement in Qatar, Washington’s regional peace envoy, officially called the United States Special Representative for Reconciliation in Afghanistan, found himself on another mission and flight. unexpected.

Zalmay Khalilzad: The US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation has embarked on a flurry of diplomacy. © Reuters

He was on his way to Pakistan, where another fence was to be repaired after the Afghan ambassador’s daughter was kidnapped and “severely tortured” while in Islamabad, according to the Afghan foreign ministry. Kabul recalled its ambassador from the Pakistani capital during the same weekend.

The Pakistani government, which has long been accused of providing sanctuary for the Taliban, was furious at Kabul’s reaction. Officials told Khalilzad they were still investigating the kidnapping, which they called a “hybrid war” by India and “misinformed Afghan brothers.”

The government also said Kabul should consider sacking its ambassador to Islamabad, adding that the Taliban’s rapid advances in Afghanistan were a result of the lack of will and ability of Afghan forces to fight, as well as the withdrawal of the United States and of NATO.

Afghan headaches continue for US President Joe Biden, with former President George W. Bush now opposing the withdrawal. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

But overall, the political and military leaders of the nuclear-weaponized Islamic republic believe they have paid their dues by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Americans, a multi-year process that has enabled in Washington to get out of Afghanistan.

Pakistani diplomats take credit for an important statistic that they cite to their American counterparts: since the American peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, no American soldiers have been killed on Afghan soil.

For Pakistan, it is unacceptable that Washington still wants Islamabad to do more, and that the rulers in Kabul – many of whom were refugees in Pakistan among the 3 million others it has welcomed since the Soviet invasion of the country. Afghanistan in the 1980s – were not grateful.

Imran Khan of Pakistan: Prime Minister met US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on July 19. © Reuters

An official photo released by Pakistan on Monday showed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s harsh meeting with a gentle-looking Khalilzad. Khan, a former movie star-like cricket star, looked defiant as he lectured America’s top diplomat in the region: We’ve done enough, was the message. And since we’re going to clean up this mess anyway, the others should do their part as well.

The same day, 3,000 km away, another leader with regional ambitions and interests to claim Afghanistan spoke.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the insurgents should “end their brothers’ occupation of land,” while downplaying the Taliban’s warning of the consequences if Turkish troops, the only NATO force to be volunteering to stay in Afghanistan to run the Kabul airport, don’t go.

Erdogan’s actions to hold the fort in Afghanistan show that he wants Ankara, and not Islamabad, New Delhi, Tehran or any other regional power, to be the guardian of the war-torn country. He said Turkey will be the “most reliable country” the United States can count on once it leaves.

But there is also a broader strategic reason. While Turkey’s purchase of Russian arms triggered Washington sanctions in 2019, analysts assume Erdogan is hoping to gain Washington’s trust and regain legitimacy through the Kabul airport mission.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping was embroiled in turmoil in western China at the start of the weekend after nine Chinese engineers involved in a Belt and Road project were killed in an attack on a bus in northern Pakistan last week. This has been added to the tally of attacks on Chinese targets by terrorist groups which Pakistan claims are based in Afghanistan.

Xi told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that he hoped “the Afghan side will strengthen the protection of Chinese citizens and organizations in Afghanistan.”

He was not the only one to call for the cessation of hostilities.

As Ghani’s presidential palace came under rocket attack on Tuesday morning at the start of Eid, no less than 15 diplomatic missions, mostly European NATO members and including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and France urged the Taliban to end the attacks.

“The Taliban offensive is in direct contradiction with their claim to support a negotiated settlement of the conflict and with the Doha peace process,” their statement read.

But a senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “you don’t stop firing when you win. And the Taliban win.”

The view from Kabul is also dismal.

“With their campaign in the north and against major trade routes, the Afghan Taliban are trying to put coercive pressure on the Afghan government, perhaps in the hope of inducing a political collapse of the republic,” Asfandyar Mir said. , a South Asian analyst. from Stanford University which is currently researching the insurgency in Kabul.

“It is possible that the Taliban will eventually attempt a military takeover, but before that they will turn to coercive options that add further pressure and avoid a military campaign in major provincial capitals. Of course, the Afghan army remains politically coherent and it will not retreat as quickly as the Taliban seem to assume. “

In the United States, the mood is different. So far, the military withdrawal, announced by President Joe Biden on April 14, enjoys bipartisan support.

A Reuters / Ipsos poll last week showed that only three in ten Democrats and four in ten Republicans believe US troops should stay.

But dissenting opinions are emerging. Over the weekend, in a rare interview, former President George W. Bush called the US withdrawal a “mistake”, saying: “I fear that Afghan women and girls suffer indescribable harm.”

Also over the weekend, retired Army General David Petraeus, who commanded the Afghanistan-Iraq-focused US Central Command and was President Barack Obama’s CIA chief, told US media that the situation is “more and more serious with each passing week.”

“I am afraid that we are looking back and regret the decision to withdraw,” he also said.

“The start of what is going to be a pretty brutal civil war, massive ethnic and sectarian displacement, the assassination of government officials, millions of refugees flocking to other countries, especially Pakistan,” Petraeus told CNN. “We will see the return of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State, although I see no immediate threat to US internal security in this regard.”

Additional reporting by Jack Stone Truitt in New York

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