Damaged buildings are pictured at the scene of a car bombing near the largest US military in Afghanistan, north of Kabul in Parwan province, on December 11, 2019. At least one person was killed and dozens wounded when a bomb exploded close to the largest US military base in Afghanistan on December 11, damaging homes and a hospital under construction near Bagram Airfield, officials said. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

2 US Troops Slain in Afghanistan, First in 2020

Taliban claim responsibility, peace talks still on hold

[Islamabad] Two US soldiers were killed and two others wounded when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on Saturday. The deaths are the first for US troops in 2020.

The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion.

US military vehicles were patrolling close to Kandahar Airfield when one of the vehicles triggered the bomb, local media reported.

The identities of the soldiers were withheld pending notification of next of kin.

There are about 14,000 US troops deployed to Afghanistan, as well as a few thousand European personnel, participating in the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support training, advising and support mission.

More than 2,400 US troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Last year, 23 American troops were killed.

Peace talks with the Taliban have been on hold since December 12, when US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad demanded a reduction in violence before a draft deal, close to final form, could be signed.

Khalilzad announced the pause in talks in reaction to a Taliban suicide attack on a medical facility under-construction near the largest US military base in the country, Bagram Air Base, on December 11. Two civilians were killed, as well as all of the attackers, and more than 70 civilians were wounded

Suhail Shaheen, a Doha-based Taliban spokesman, told The Media Line, “We [the Taliban] hope that the delay will not be a long delay; efforts are underway to sort it out.”

He added: “A date to sign the peace agreement has not been set. We expect to set it soon.”

Earlier, on December 31, Shaheen confirmed to The Media Line that “during the recent talks, the US proposed a reduction in violence for a number of days before the peace deal signing ceremony.

“The proposal is under discussion and consideration by our leadership and in the final stages. But it needs the approval of our supreme leader,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sadiq Siddiqi, the Afghan presidential spokesman, rejected the US proposal for a mere reduction in violence. “A [complete] ceasefire is the government’s plan for the start of peace talks,” he said.

In his latest tweet on Sunday, Siddiqi said that “‘reducing violence’ does not have a precise military, legal, and practical meaning. The Afghan government’s plan to start the peace talks is a ceasefire. For us, peace means the end of war,” he said.

Pakistani Lt. Gen. (ret.) Waheed Arshad, a former chief of general staff and a regional security analyst, told The Media Line that “there are only two interlocutors who will decide what will happen in Afghanistan: the Taliban and the US.

“They are at the table as equals. The Taliban will never agree to a ceasefire and give up their on-the-ground strength unless they have an agreed political framework with the US which caters to their interests,” he added.

“The US would [also] like to have its interests looked after, but its strategic liberty of action is curtailed. If the Taliban agree to some international presence [in Afghanistan] in return for continued foreign aid, it would be a win for the Americans.”

Arshad also told The Media Line that “post a US drawdown, I see more violence if the spoilers like India and Iran interfere too much.” He went on, “An Afghan government that has a national character that caters to the Taliban and other power centers’ interests, underwritten by the International community, would be in our [Pakistan’s] national interest.

“We also should expect more global pressure post-US withdrawal, because the entire world community will look for Afghan stability through Pakistan,” Arshad concluded.

Pakistani Brig. Gen. (ret.) Haris Nawaz, a leading defense strategic analyst, told The Media Line that “America rightly felt like it was losing control over the incipient peace process in Afghanistan after Russia adopted the long-standing Pakistani position a few years ago that the only a realistic solution to the war is to talk with the Taliban as a legitimate political party to the conflict.”

Nawaz further told The Media Line that “the Taliban wants the US to completely withdraw from Afghanistan as part of a peace deal and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Kabul government, while the US is unlikely to leave the country without at least replacing its troops with mercenaries, and seems intent on having the [Islamist] group become part of a so-called ‘transitional government.’”

The retired general continued, “The timing of the talks and their cancellation take on urgent importance because of the upcoming national elections later this year. Trump will have scored domestic political points if his government cuts a deal with the Taliban, to ensure that the vote goes off without a hitch, even if the US had to ‘concede’ a bit by recognizing the group as a legitimate political party.”

Nawaz further told The Media Line that “from the Taliban’s perspective, it can be argued that making a temporary ‘concession’ and agreeing to run in Kabul-organized national elections or at least not obstruct them might have been worth it if the US proved its good faith, either right beforehand or shortly afterward, by drastically reducing its troop presence in the country.

“At the same time, however, so-called ‘hawks’ on both sides [in the Afghan government and among the Taliban] might have been unhappy with such a deal and sought to undermine it,” he added.

“Trump didn’t really lose much by this [the suspension of peace talks] happening, because he can just continue portraying himself as a victim of unlucky circumstances and conspiracies, while Afghanistan will probably return back to the status quo of fratricidal violence.”

Nawaz further said, “The Taliban, however, might bifurcate into so-called ‘moderate’ and ‘hardliner’ factions, with Pakistan potentially being blamed if some members defect to ISIS as a result, thus explaining why Islamabad sincerely did all that it could to keep the talks alive.”

He continued, “Having said all that, the public obviously isn’t privy to all the ins and outs of what happened and why, meaning that it’s still too early to rule out the resumption of peace talks sometime in the near future,” Nawaz said.

Sikander Terakhel, a former Afghan diplomat based in Helmand province, told The Media Line that the Afghan government “has been unable to play any role in the ongoing peace talks, because the Taliban has always refused to hold direct peace talks with Kabul, calling it a ‘US-backed puppet, ruling illegally in Afghanistan.’”

Terakhel argued that “just as US troops are killed, similarly Taliban fighters are also being killed by the US Air Force bombings, and when open warfare is being waged, the same is the case. Such fresh violence would not derail or impact the peace talks.”

The average “unbiased” Afghan man on the street “wants the Taliban to agree to intra-Afghan talks, just to end conflict in a war-torn country,” he said.

“Though intra-Afghan negotiations are a hard task, even more difficult [than US-Taliban talks], I don’t see that the recent death of US troops will derail any peace process that includes intra-Afghan negotiations,” Terakhel added.

Terakhel told The Media Line that “as the US leaves Afghanistan as it was in the past, once again the civil war will grip the country. The Ashraf Ghani-led government is not concerned about the Afghan people; it is only concerned with maintaining its rule.”

Former diplomat Terakhel also told The Media Line that “even India is unhappy with the Afghan Taliban, because they have ignored India in the entire peace talks. There is a nexus between India and Ashraf Ghani’s regime, so both India and Ghani’s colleagues are trying to sabotage the peace efforts. It is a good sign that the US, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistanis are well aware of the Indo-Ashraf Ghani nexus,” he added.

“The Afghan administration does not want to end India’s role in Afghanistan, nor does India want Pakistan involved in the establishment of a Taliban government,” Terakhel said.

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