Trump administration to seek direct talks with Taliban over peace deal: NYT

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NEW YORK, Jul 16 (APP):The Trump administration has told American envoys to seek direct talks with the Taliban to end the United States’ longest-ever war, in a major shift after years of the country’s diplomatic policy on the conflict, The New York Times reported Monday.
The change in White House stance rolls back a long-held position that any talks must be led and controlled by the Afghan government.
The White House has now told diplomats to seek initial talks with the militant insurgent movement to try to kick start a wider peace process to end the 17-year-long conflict, the newspaper said in a report from Kabul.
The shift marks a significant concession to Taliban demands and comes amid frustration in the White House that Trump’s decision last year to ramp up the war has so far yielded few results.
Taliban leaders have long said they will not talk with the Kabul government, which they see as a puppet regime, and will instead only talk with America, which ousted the movement from power in 2001.
In a statement last month the Taliban said: “The invading American party must realize and understand the reality of the situation, stop pointless stubbornness, sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio and withdraw their occupying forces from Afghanistan.”
While no date for any talks has been set, the dispatch said, adding that the effort could still be derailed, the willingness of the United States to pursue direct talks is an indication of the sense of urgency in the administration to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.
Not long after he took office, President Donald Trump agreed to provide more resources to his field commanders fighting the Taliban, adding a few thousand troops to bring the American total to about 15,000. But a year later the insurgent group continues to threaten Afghan districts and cities and inflict heavy casualties on the country’s security forces, it was pointed out.
The government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and the Taliban 59, the report said. The remaining 119 districts are contested, it said citing the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which was created by Congress to monitor progress in the country.
Providing more authority to American diplomats, a move that was decided on last month by Trump’s national security aides, is seen as part of a wider push to inject new momentum into efforts to end the war.
Over the past few weeks senior American officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for direct United States-Taliban talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly visited Kabul last week, and Alice G. Wells, the top diplomat for the region, spent several days holding talks with major players in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Efforts have particularly focused on trying to persuade the Afghan leadership that such talks are not a replacement for negotiations with the country’s coalition government, but are meant to break the ice and pave the way for those, the dispatch said. Because the previous Afghan government felt left out of peace efforts during the Obama administration, it resisted direct talks, which was one reason peace efforts at that time collapsed.
Neither the State Department nor a Taliban spokesman would comment on the shift of policy toward engaging the Taliban directly, according to the newspaper.
Ms. Wells, during her trip to Kabul, reported a new “energy and impulse for everyone to renew their efforts to find a negotiated settlement,” largely as a result of the cease-fire. Days earlier, Pompeo, in a statement, said that there would be no precondition for talks – and that everything, including the presence of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, was up for discussion.
“I think Secretary Pompeo was very clear – we are prepared to facilitate, to support, to participate in – so there is nothing that precludes us from engaging with the Taliban in that fashion,” Ms. Wells said. “What we are not prepared to do is at the exclusion of the Afghan government – that is the critical difference.”
“We are doing everything we can,” she added, “to ensure that our actions help the Taliban and the Afghan government to the same table.”
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said last month at a news conference that the peace process would be a complicated, layered effort rolled out in phases that were still in the preparatory stage.
He left open the possibility of a more direct American role in the early efforts.
“Various ideas, creative ideas are floating on how to break this logjam and get started,” Ghani said.
Afghan officials and political leaders, according to the Times, said direct American talks with the Taliban would probably then grow into negotiations that would include the Taliban, the Afghan government, the United States and Pakistan.
“If we look backwards, the Bonn process is a pretty good paradigm for what ultimately a peace process is going to look like,” Ms. Wells said, referring to the 2001 talks in the German city that established the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. “You are going to start off – the Afghans speaking to one another, but obviously the United States and Pakistan were critical in that inner core, and then you build out.”
The Times said, “A near-consensus has grown among American and Afghan officials involved in earlier and current efforts to fire up a peace process that the only way out of the war is for the United States to take a more direct role in negotiations.
“That realization rests on several facts: that the Taliban are a stubborn insurgency, that they have not budged on their demand to talk directly with the Americans, and that the Afghan government, mired in infighting and marred by political opposition, would struggle to lead a cohesive peace agenda without American help.”