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Taliban talks take on sense of urgency

by The New York Times | April 5, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

DOHA, Qatar -- U.S. diplomats are trying to build on parts of the peace deal made with the Taliban last year, specifically the classified portions that outlined what military actions -- on both sides -- were supposed to be prohibited under the signed agreement, according to American, Afghan and Taliban officials.

The negotiations, which have been quietly underway for months, have morphed into the Biden administration's last-ditch diplomatic effort to achieve a reduction in violence, which could enable the United States to still exit the country should broader peace talks fail to yield progress in the coming weeks.

If these discussions and the separate talks between the Afghan government and Taliban falter, the United States will likely find itself with thousands of troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1. That is the deadline by which all U.S. military forces are meant to withdraw from the country under the 2020 agreement with the Taliban and would come at a time when the insurgent group likely will have begun its spring offensive against the beleaguered Afghan security forces.

Both of these conditions would likely set back any progress made in the past months toward a political settlement, despite both the Trump and the Biden administrations' fervent attempts to end the U.S.' longest-running war.

"If there is no breakthrough in the next two to three weeks, Biden will have scored his first major foreign policy failure," said Asfandyar Mir, an analyst at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

The proposed agreement specific to two annexes of the 2020 deal, which were deemed classified by the Trump administration, is intended to stave off an insurgent victory on the battlefield during the peace talks by limiting Taliban military operations against Afghan forces, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with the negotiations. In return, the United States would push for the release of all Taliban prisoners still imprisoned by the Afghan government and the lifting of United Nations sanctions against the Taliban -- two goals outlined in the original deal.

These new negotiations, which exclude representatives from the Afghan government, are being carried out amid a contentious logjam between the Taliban and the Afghans.

With May 1 just a few weeks away, there is a growing sense of urgency and uncertainty looming over all sides.

The United States currently has around 3,500 troops in the country, alongside thousands of contractors and international forces still on the ground. Withdrawing those forces and all their equipment by May 1 is, at this point, almost logistically impossible, experts and officials said.

The U.S.' unilateral negotiations with the Taliban have drawn ire from Afghan negotiators, who see the side discussions as a distraction from the broader peace talks. Even if the United States and the Taliban reach a deal to reduce violence, it is not likely to result in a full cease-fire, said one of the Afghan government negotiators, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Specifically, the United States is pushing for three months of reduced violence and has been for some time.

But in recent months, the Taliban submitted their own proposal with requests that were not fully accepted by the U.S. negotiators and included severe restrictions on U.S. air power.

Many of the delays in securing a new deal to reduce violence stem from the original February 2020 agreement. That deal loosely called for the Taliban to stop suicide attacks and large-scale offensives in exchange for the U.S. forces scaling back drone strikes and raids, among other types of military assaults. But both sides interpreted those terms differently, officials said, and both have accused one another of violating the deal.

The new terms for a reduction in violence have been a serious point of contention during the past several months.

The insurgent group thinks Biden's negotiators are manipulating the proposed agreement to reduce violence by asking for "extreme" measures, such as halting the use of roadside bombs and pausing attacks on checkpoints, according to people close to the negotiations.

Taliban negotiators say they believe the U.S.' requests equate to a cease-fire, while U.S. military officials say that if certain parameters are not clearly outlined, then the Taliban will shift their tactics to exploit any loopholes they can find -- like they have done in the past.

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