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Afghan Government Demands Cease-Fire Before Any Taliban Talks


KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government said on Tuesday that it would not take part in negotiations with Taliban unless a cease-fire had first held for at least a month, a demand that is likely to face resistance from the insurgents and complicate the revival of peace efforts that were upended by President Trump.

Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan president’s national security adviser, told a news conference in the capital, Kabul, that the government saw a cease-fire as a test of whether the leaders negotiating on behalf of the Taliban still had the power to order an end to fighting, something that rising levels of violence during the group’s talks with the United States had led it to doubt.

“In our previous peace plan, we had no preconditions,” Mr. Mohib said. “But in the past year a lot has happened, and we have come to the conclusion that the Taliban are not united and they don’t have control of the fighting. If we are going to give the Taliban the privilege of peace negotiations, they need to prove how much control they have over their commanders and fighters.”

The Taliban have long refused to meet the Afghan government for direct negotiations even without preconditions, saying they would agree only to government representation in broader Afghan negotiations after the United States has announced the withdrawal of its troops from the country.

The government was not a party to the talks that led Taliban and United States negotiators to the brink of a deal last month, after nearly a year of meetings in the Gulf state of Qatar, a process brought to an abrupt end by a tweet from Mr. Trump.

Any revival of negotiations would be complicated not only by questions about the position in Washington, but also by uncertainty over the leadership in Kabul: The results of a presidential election last month have been delayed, with the two leading candidates both essentially claiming victory.

To reach the point where the Taliban and the Afghan government are prepared to start negotiating a political settlement, Western officials have suggested, might require trust-building measures such as a prisoner swap and a reduction in violence.

But the fighting continues unabated. Early on Tuesday, the Taliban attacked a military base in Aqcha district, in northern Jawzjan province, killing at least 20 government forces, said Ghulam Sakhi Subhani, the district governor. The Afghan government, on the other hand, said it had carried out operations in 17 of the country’s 34 provinces in the past 24 hours, killing dozens of Taliban fighters.

In response to the government’s new demand, representatives of the insurgents said they stood by the framework hammered out in Qatar: a phased American troop withdrawal in return for a Taliban promise of breaking with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, followed by Afghan negotiations in which a cease-fire would be not a precondition but would be one of the topics for discussion.

“The peace agreement is already concluded. Answers to all questions, including cease-fire, are there,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban negotiating team. “Why are they just beating around the bush?”

Although an uptick in Taliban violence was publicly blamed for the breakdown in talks, it came after pushback against a grand final gesture requested by Mr. Trump — a meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David in which the deal could have been finalized.

The results of last month’s election to choose a new Afghan government, originally promised in mid-October, are now expected around Nov. 14. Both the camps of President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have said they are winning in the first round, suggesting that either a runoff vote or a dispute over the declared winner is likely. Any second-round vote would probably have to be delayed until the spring because of harsh weather.

After the United States’ talks with the Taliban broke down, many Western officials suggested that the insurgents had pushed their hand too far by escalating the violence, assaulting Afghan cities and carrying out back-to-back suicide bombings in the country’s capital as the deal was being finalized.

Some officials said they saw that as a sign that the Taliban might be divided over the deal, with the political leaders leading the negotiations unable to control the military commanders and foot soldiers. Analysts say the Taliban divisions are often overplayed.

The threat of President Trump pulling American troops out of Afghanistan without a deal with the Taliban has remained, underscored by his recent decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Syria. Some analysts said the Afghan government’s new precondition for negotiations was not considering that possibility.

“The die has already been cast on the U.S. negotiating its withdrawal with the Taliban,” said Ershad Ahmadi, a former deputy foreign minister. “We run the risk of a withdrawal without a peace deal.”

There has been particular uncertainty over whether the Haqqani Network, a ruthless arm of the Taliban long behind much urban violence, was onboard with the deal.

In recent weeks, Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, has begun traveling again in the region in the hopes of reviving the peace process.

Mr. Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, said Mr. Khalilzad had met this week with the Afghan president over the fate of Western hostages, potentially including two professors, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, held by the Haqqani Network since 2016. He said the Afghan government was ready to assist, but he would not elaborate.

He was pressed on suggestions that those hostages could be freed as part of a bigger package to bring the Haqqanis into a peace deal, involving violence-reduction measures and the release of Anas Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani Network and is also deputy leader of the Taliban’s leadership council.

Mr. Mohib would not be drawn on that idea, but said that broader discussions involving a cease-fire and prisoner swaps had taken place before.

“For us, the important point was that the Haqqanis no longer continue the kind of barbaric attacks they have carried out in Kabul,” he said.

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Mazar-e-Sharif.


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