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Peace Talks Between Afghanistan, Taliban Expected To Begin Soon

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Historic peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected any day now. Those meetings will try to end 40 years of conflict. But as NPR's Diaa Hadid explains, Afghans are worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In Kabul, the government is freeing thousands of Taliban prisoners. Some of these men are accused of terrible violence...

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIRENS)

HADID: ...Like a bombing in Kabul that killed dozens of people back in 2017. Sediq Sediqqi is a spokesman for Afghanistan's president. He says the prisoner releases show the government's ready to make sacrifices to pave the way for negotiations.

SEDIQ SEDIQQI: We would like to end this violence. We would like to make sure that the Taliban understands and realizes the opportunity of peace and make them understand that the violence will not get them anything.

HADID: But analysts say the Afghan government is trying to drag out these talks. And to understand why, you have to go back to February 29.

(APPLAUSE)

HADID: That's when the U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban. It called for most foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan by next April. The Taliban in return promised not to attack U.S. and NATO troops or shelter militants like al-Qaida. The deal also made demands of the Afghan government, like freeing these Taliban prisoners. Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that requirement put the government in a tight spot.

ANDREW WATKINS: They don't really have much of a choice other than to do what a lot of their supporters would do as open capitulation to the Taliban.

HADID: The prisoner release and subsequent peace talks were supposed to have taken place within 10 days of the deal being signed. Six months have now passed. One reason is a lack of trust in the Taliban. After all, they're still attacking Afghan forces. This is Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network.

KATE CLARK: So for the Taliban, are they intent on reaching a political agreement through negotiations, or is the discussions primarily a means of getting the U.S. military off the battlefield, getting large numbers of prisoners out before a military push on Kabul?

HADID: Another reason - analysts say the government doubts Trump's support and fear they'll have to wrap up negotiations by April when foreign forces are expected to have largely withdrawn. So instead...

CLARK: The Kabul government does seem to be holding out for a Biden presidency.

HADID: That's analyst Kate Clark again. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated this deal, says Afghans should trust that America is acting in good faith. He says they support a sustainable peace in a democratic Afghanistan. And Watkins from the Crisis Group says hoping Biden might help them strike a better deal might be overly optimistic.

WATKINS: I think it would be a big mistake for the Afghan government to hope for a significant difference between President Trump and a hypothetical President Biden's desire to withdraw from Afghanistan.

HADID: Even so, analysts say officials are clinging to hope because if they negotiate as foreign forces pull out, they'll have little to no leverage to preserve the gains the country's made in the past two decades, like their constitution or advances in women's rights. And if they can't reach an agreement, Clark says it's not clear that an alternative scenario has been gamed out.

CLARK: There is no Plan B for Afghanistan as far as I can see from talking to officials in Washington. If the talks don't work out, what happens next?

HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly call the Afghanistan Analysts Network the Afghan Analysts Network.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 24, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In this story, we incorrectly call the Afghanistan Analysts Network the Afghan Analysts Network.
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