After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

In this photo taken on June 17, 2018, Afghan Taliban militants and residents stand on a armored Humvee vehicle of the Afghan National Army (ANA) as they celebrate a cease-fire on the third day of Eid in Maiwand district of Kandahar province. (Javed Tanveer/AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018

After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday
  • While Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it”

KABUL/WASHINGTON: Prospects have risen for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called a cease-fire and allowed militants to roam into cities in a gamble to encourage peace talks.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led troops, insist that any negotiations with what it calls the “puppet” Afghan government on a peace plan can begin only after talks with the United States about withdrawing foreign forces.
Analysts and Western diplomats said Ghani’s offer to hold unconditional peace talks had set the stage for US officials to open backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, despite Washington’s policy that peace talks be Afghan-led.
“Ghani has done his bit,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank.
“It is now for the US to cut through this blockade,” he said, although that would be a departure from US policy that talks to end the 17-year-old war must be wholly Afghan-led.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday. The Taliban said its cease-fire ended on Sunday.
“As President Ghani emphasised in his statement to the Afghan people, peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Richard Olson, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, described the statement as significant “in that it signals that the US is prepared to ultimately discuss the issue that is paramount to the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces.”
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the start of the cease-fire, however said there were a number of issues that made direct talks between the Taliban and the United States unlikely in the short-term.
The official said there was a substantial gap in knowledge about the Taliban — for instance as to who had the authority to negotiate on the their behalf. “There is not enough intelligence or resources on this issue,” the official said.
A second official said there was still a question of what would happen with hard-line elements of the Taliban. “There are Taliban that won’t come to the table,” the official said.
Taliban call
The Taliban, in a statement marking the end of their cease-fire on Sunday, said the organization was unified and called on “the invading American party” to “sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio.”
A senior diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations leading to the cease-fire estimated the chances of eventual talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at “50-50.”
“The Taliban want to talk to the US directly on withdrawal (of foreign forces) because they do not want to share the credit of withdrawal with the government,” the official said.
And while Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it.”
In August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes. Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge areas of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
Ghani, never widely popular, met his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday to secure support for peace talks. He visited a restaurant in Kabul where he met diners and took selfies with children, trying to capitalize on the unprecedented party atmosphere created by the cease-fire to mark last weekend’s Eid Al-Fitr festival.
But Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence and head of a political party, said Ghani had committed a blunder by allowing insurgents to pour into government-controlled areas.
“Thousands of Taliban fighters were allowed to enter with guns and some of them could be hiding in civilian areas, planning attacks,” Saleh told Reuters.
Ghani has also come in for praise.
“Now we can say that our president is making an absolute honest attempt” for peace, said Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chairman of the outspoken New National Front of Afghanistan.

MILF chief makes historic visit to Philippines military camp

Updated 19 November 2018

MILF chief makes historic visit to Philippines military camp

MANILA: Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, as a Muslim rebel, once envisioned destroying military camps in the Philippines. 

But on Monday, for the first time ever, he visited Camp Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo — the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) main camp — where he was even accorded military honors. 

MILF is the Philippines’ Muslim rebel group which, for more than 40 years, has sought autonomy for the Moro people in Mindanao.

“More than four decades ago, I walked out of a university without completing my engineering degree. Many of my Bangsamoro colleagues, I know, did the same. Since then, I have avoided military installations and camps,” Ebrahim told reporters after his meeting with AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr.

“And to be very candid, during those years of war, I have thought only of destroying or neutralizing military camps and I never imagined during those dark days that I would one day step inside a military camp and be feted with this exceptional honor by what used to be our adversary,” Ebrahim added.

As he sat with Galvez during the press briefing, Murad said he “cannot fully express in words” his gratitude for the privilege of being honored at the headquarters of the AFP.

“I came, I saw, I found friends, and I made peace!” said the MILF chair, adding: “I am truly honored to join our partners in peace, from the highest leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, down to the lowest-ranking element of this institution.”

Murad said his trip to the AFP main camp was to reciprocate the visit of Galvez, who also made a historic visit to the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat in October.

“This visit is a concrete manifestation not only of the solid partnership of our institutions, but a testament of an enduring personal friendship built upon the solid foundation of our mutual commitment to work for peace and see through the dawn of a new day — not just for the Bangsamoro but for this country as well,” Murad said.

The MILF chair said that at the age of 19 in 1969, he left the university to join the Moro struggle in the southern Philippines. 

“This happened during the time when there was a series of massacres. We felt there was already a genocidal campaign against the Moro people so we were forced to organize ourselves to defend. Generally it’s a defense,” he said.

The situation, he said, worsened in 1972 when martial law was declared by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. 

“The atrocities of the government security forces have worsened. Many Moro people have died so we have to organize already not only a defense but a liberation organization, which is the birth of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF),” said Murad. The MILF would later become a faction of the MNLF.

He pointed out, though, that their policy from the beginning was that they “have never considered the AFP or any soldier of the Republic as (their) enemy.”

“What we have always considered as the enemy is oppression and injustice. This is the teaching of Islam and this is what we have always adhered to in the Code of Conduct of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). In the pursuit, however, of our struggle for the right to self-determination of our people, we then saw the AFP as the instrument of the injustices committed against our people such as the loss of our homeland, discrimination and prejudices, and massacres, as well as the denial of our freedom to practice our religion,” Murad said.

But over the years, he stressed, they have also seen the gradual transformation of the AFP, which he now calls their “partners in peace.”

Galvez, for his part, said the reciprocal visit of Murad signifies the strong trust and confidence of the MILF leadership in the AFP and the national government, and the same was true of the military’s trust and confidence in the MILF leadership.

He then cited the visit of MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar and BIAF Chief of Staff Sammy Al Mansour and colleagues at the Bangsamoro Transition Commission in Camp Aguinaldo to convey their commitment toward the peaceful resolution of all conflict in the Bangsamoro region.

“On Oct. 6, we paid a visit to MILF Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, and we declared that the war is over between the AFP and the MILF. I was much honored when around 6,000 men and women of the MILF lined up together on the 5 km road from Cotabato City to Simuay to welcome us,” said the AFP chief.

“The visits done by AFP and MILF manifest the strong mutual desire of both parties toward just and lasting peace for the Bangsamoro Region,” Galvez continued.

Murad’s visit to the AFP camp comes two months ahead of the plebiscite for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The BAR will enjoy fiscal autonomy and be governed by the Bangsamoro Parliament.

Meanwhile, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Dr. Yousef Al Othaimeen has officially affirmed his support of the ongoing peace process in the Southern Philippines.

Murad told Arab News that the OIC secretary-general gave his commitment during a meeting last Nov. 6 at the OIC office in Jeddah.

During the meeting, the two sides reviewed the latest developments in the peace process in the Mindanao and discussed the forthcoming plebiscite, due to be held in January 2019 to ratify the BOL.

Murad said the secretary-general also assured him that he would try to reach out to the member states of the OIC to support the peace process in Mindanao. 

“He knows there will be many challenges, among them the establishment of the (Bangsamoro) government.” 

“He (the secretary-general) also said he will personally visit the Philippines before the plebiscite,” Murad added.

A statement posted in the OIC website said the secretary-general welcomed developments in the peace process in Mindanao and urged all parties to remain fully committed to the process.

“Talks also focused on the visit by the secretary-general to the region and the importance of the Bangsamoro people to unify, consolidate and converge together toward the advancement of the peace process and the final resolution of the situation in Mindanao,” it added.