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International relations

Taliban call fighters back from winter lull early as talks stall

Demand for 'inclusive Islamic system' and autonomy cloud outlook for peace

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of the Taliban and the U.S. in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29, 2020.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- Amid growing distrust over the future of peace talks with the administration of new U.S. President Joe Biden, Taliban leaders have called commanders back from their winter break earlier than usual, a leader of the group told Nikkei Asia.

In winter, roads are blocked and mountains are covered with snow in parts of the war-ravaged country that slows fighting and the Taliban usually allow many of its commanders to put down their weapons. The long break lasts until a "spring offensive" is declared, normally in late April or early May, which marks the beginning of the annual fighting season.

"Commanders have received instructions from the leadership [to return to their positions, and leaders have] arranged some financial support for their families," the Taliban senior official said.

The directive indicates the insurgents are making advance preparations for the fighting season, just as intra-Afghan negotiations in Qatar are stalemated. Najia Anwari, spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry for Peace, said on Saturday that the Taliban representatives have not yet returned to the negotiations, blaming them for the impasse in the fragile process. The Taliban have not commented on Najia's remarks.

Afghan media has been reporting that government forces are also preparing for a counteroffensive.

With no progress in negotiations, Biden administration officials are deeply disillusioned with the peace process. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Taliban are not meeting promises made in the Doha agreement signed in February last year for withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan by May.

"The Taliban have not met their commitments," Kirby told at a press briefing in Washington last week, specifically citing "a looming deadline of early May." He added that unless the group renounces "terrorism" and stops "violent attacks" on Afghan security forces and the Afghan people, "it's very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement."

For its part, the Taliban are also adamant and have rejected calls for a cease-fire to push the peace process forward. Taliban senior negotiator Sher Abbas Stanekzai said the Taliban would resume fighting against U.S. forces if they do not withdraw in accordance with the Doha agreement.

"Americans have been invaders since 2001," Stanekzai, deputy head of the Taliban negotiating team, told reporters in Moscow on Friday after meeting Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan. "We are killing them. If they remain in Afghanistan after this [agreement] we will also kill them."

The senior Taliban official who spoke to Nikkei, privy to the intra-Afghan negotiations in Qatar, says the peace process currently faces a deadlock over its future setup and a cease-fire. The Afghan government negotiating team wants the Taliban to first declare a cease-fire and join the present Kabul government, according to the official, who asked not to be identified by name. He told Nikkei that the Taliban have rejected the Kabul proposals and urged that, before declaration of a cease-fire, the government team agree to "an inclusive Islamic system," the details of which the Taliban have not elaborated on but which seems to refer to a federal governing system allowing autonomy for the insurgent group.

That has been the bone of contention since the political envoys of the Taliban and the Afghan government team resumed negotiators in Qatar on Jan. 5 after a three-week break to decide the future political road map. Both sides had exchanged lists of proposals in December but have not yet even agreed as to what should be on the agenda.

The lack of progress has annoyed the U.S. A Taliban leader says American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Scott Miller had a very tense meeting with the senior Taliban negotiators Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sheikh Abdul Hakeem Haqqani, among others, in Qatar on Jan. 16. The U.S. officials "rejected" the Taliban's demands to release remaining prisoners and lift U.N. sanctions against the group's leaders unless they reduce violence and make progress in the talks.

Taliban members hand over their weapons and join in the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on June 25, 2020.   © Reuters

A cease-fire is a top priority for the beleaguered Kabul administration, but Taliban officials continue to press for an agreement on a new setup for the "inclusive Islamic system" before announcing a cease-fire. The Taliban have rejected calls for a cease-fire because for them fighting is a major tool to maintain their strong position at the negotiating table. A separate Taliban official told Nikkei that it would be difficult for the Taliban to regroup their fighters if they declare either a permanent or longtime cease-fire.

No American or other foreign soldier has been killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban and the U.S. signed the agreement on Feb. 29. However, a spike in violence is now claiming the lives of Afghans, mostly civilians and the Taliban and the Afghan government accuse each other as being responsible. The Taliban and the U.S. military, meanwhile, also trade accusations about violations of the agreement.

The Taliban recently released an audio message from one of their influential clerics who justified fighting against government forces as a continuation of their "holy war." Sheikh Hakeem Sharee, who is also a member of the Taliban's powerful Rehbari Shura, or leadership council, said Afghanistan's rulers had "brought the Americans [to Afghanistan] and taken [them] to the homes of the Muslims."

Sharee's speech that was released via the Taliban's website reflects the insurgents' current mood of not giving up fighting until they have secured an agreement on the "inclusive Islamic system." But Kabul has flatly rejected the notion as it rules out reversing the country's present democratic system.

The Taliban want Biden to maintain the agreement they signed with the Trump's administration last February. But new National Security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Saturday with Afghan National Security adviser Hamdullah Mohib and made clear the U.S. intention to review the deal, including assessing whether the Taliban are living up to commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence in Afghanistan, and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders, according to Emily Horne, NSC spokesperson.

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