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
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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.


UK warns dual nationals over travel to Iran, as France holds on envoy nomination

Updated 19 September 2018
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UK warns dual nationals over travel to Iran, as France holds on envoy nomination

  • Britain is seeking the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was arrested in April 2016
  • France will not name a new ambassador to Tehran before getting information from Iran following a foiled plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris in June

LONDON: Britain on Wednesday advised British-Iranian dual nationals against all but essential travel to Iran, tightening up its existing travel advice and warning it has only limited powers to support them if detained.

The advisory came in tandem with France’s decision to hold off on appointing a new ambassador to Iran, as it seeks clarification over an attempt to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris in June

“The Foreign Secretary (Jeremy Hunt) has taken the decision to advise against all but essential travel by UK-Iranian dual nationals to Iran,” a foreign office spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
“British citizens who also hold Iranian nationality face risks if they travel to Iran, as we have seen all too sadly in a number of cases. The Iranian government does not recognize dual nationality, so if a dual national is detained our ability to provide support is extremely limited.”
Earlier this month Britain’s Middle East minister Alistair Burt used a visit to Iran to discuss cases of detained dual nationals, alongside other diplomatic issues.
Britain is seeking the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she headed back to Britain with her daughter, now aged four, after a family visit.
She was convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment, a charge denied by her family and the Foundation, a charity organization that is independent of Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.
Meanwhile, France will not name a new ambassador to Tehran before getting information from Iran following a foiled plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris last June, French officials said on Wednesday.
An Iranian diplomat based in Austria and three other people were arrested on suspicion of plotting the attack on a meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
Iran has said it had nothing to do with the plot, which it called a “false flag” operation staged by figures within the opposition group itself.
The incident has hit relations just as France and its European partners are seeking to salvage a 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.
France’s ambassador to Iran departed in the summer. Iran has also yet to replace its departed ambassador to Paris.
“We have a charge d’affaires today in Tehran and there is a high-level dialogue between French and Iranian authorities,” said a French presidential source.
“We are working together to bring to light what happened around this event ... I wouldn’t say there is a direct link (in not appointing an ambassador), but Iran has promised to give us objective facts in the coming weeks that would allow us to pursue our diplomatic relationship as it is today.”
A French diplomatic source said the nomination had indeed been suspended as a result of the alleged plot.
France’s Foreign Ministry in August told its diplomats and officials to postpone non-essential travel to Iran indefinitely, citing the plot and a hardening of Tehran’s attitude toward France, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.
President Emmanuel Macron is likely to discuss the issue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when they meet on Sept. 25 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the source said.
Along with Britain and Germany, France is trying save a 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which was thrown into disarray when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord in May and re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran.
Even so, tensions between Paris and Tehran have grown in recent months as Macron and his government have become increasingly frustrated with Iran’s activities in the Middle East region, in particular its ballistic missile program.