On Leap Year Day, the United States and Taliban signed an agreement in Qatar that sought to end the nearly 19-year-old Afghan civil war.
Under the agreement, Afghan parties to the conflict would:
- Agree on a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing in postwar Afghanistan
- Begin negotiations March 10 (Tuesday of this week).
- In the preparation for those talks, if delayed, or suspended, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails were to be released. Concurrently, 1,000 Afghan forces’ members in insurgent (or Taliban) custody were to be freed as well.
- Both the Taliban and U.S. forces pledged to refrain from attacking each other.
Unfortunately, things have fallen apart since February 29. Rather than quiet in beleaguered Afghanistan, there has been an upsurge of violence. According to VOA’s veteran reporter and Afghan watcher in neighboring Pakistan Ayuz Gul, Afghan officials say that 32 people were killed March 6 in the capital, Kabul, when gunmen opened fire on a memorial gathering to commemorate the death of a prominent Shi’ite Hazara politician.
According to Mr. Gul, witnesses said the shooting started when former Afghan vice president Karim Khalili was speaking in Kabul to commemorate the death of a prominent minority Shi’ite political figure. The event was shown live on Afghan television, and Mr. Khalili could be seen running for cover with others when the gunfire erupted. That attack came from a nearby building under construction.
Women and children were among those killed and injured. Afghan health officials said they expected the death toll to increase. An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman said Afghan security forces later engaged three of the assailants and killed them in an hours-long clash to end the siege.
The Path Ahead?
Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team, said on March 6 if the negotiations could not begin on time, the responsibility will rest “with the other side.” This, despite an unprecedented 35-minute phone call by President Trump two days earlier with a top Taliban leader, about the historic February 29 peace agreement between the U.S. and Taliban.
The U.S. military had just carried out what it termed “a defense strike” against Taliban fighters “who were actively attacking an Afghan security checkpoint in Nahar-e-Saraj, southern Afghanistan.” A Taliban spokesman said its deputy chief assured Mr. Trump that his group would seek “positive future relations with the U.S. after all American and coalition troops withdraw from Afghanistan under the Doha peace accord.”
According to Washington Post reporters Missy Ryan and John Hudson on March 9th, a key diplomat in the Taliban-U.S. talks is Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American negotiator “with clout in the halls of Washington and the craggy peaks of the Hindu Kush”. Also on March 9th, an unidentified U.S. spokesman said a scheduled withdrawal began from the 14,000 American troop level.
Possibly this week, the Post correspondents say, representatives of the Afghanistan government and Afghan society may sit down to begin mapping out and seeking consensus on what lies ahead. Issues include the future government’s structure, the role of Islam and women’s rights. The format and even the location of the talks are uncertain.
What is certain, retired Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel wrote recently, is what former President Thomas Jefferson advised: “A nation could never be ignorant and free. Governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed. That consent is obtained by the free flow of information. Factual information. That’s still an idea worth fighting for.”
Harbingers of a New Era?
Consider for a moment the changes in Afghanistan since 2001. It has a firm foundation today in a new appreciation of women’s rights, in a diversity of ideas in the importance of education for its children, who used to work only in the fields. Aren’t these the foundational building blocks of a Jeffersonian democracy such as America’s founding fathers envisioned? Why not in Afghanistan, as it maps out its future?
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More