Ghani seeks ownership of Afghan peace talks

Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of an attack in Kabul on March 7. (Reuters)
Updated 13 March 2019

Ghani seeks ownership of Afghan peace talks

  • US, Taliban say consensus reached on vital part of agreement
  • The ownership of the peace process belongs to people and the government,” Ghani said

KABUL: President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday that Afghanistan’s peace process must be led by his government, a day after US and Taliban representatives announced that they were closer to finalizing a deal following 16 days of intensive talks.

On Tuesday night, after the conclusion of the fifth and longest round of talks in Doha, Qatar, both the Taliban and US officials said that they had reached a consensus on the vital parts of the agreement, which pushes for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. 

In return, the Taliban have agreed not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for militant activities against the US or any other country.

The US chief negotiator and its peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, flew back to Washington on Tuesday night to brief Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the details of the meeting, even as the Taliban’s representatives said that they wanted to consult with the group’s leadership too. Both groups are expected to meet in Doha by the end of March.

“We want permanent peace … the ownership of the peace process belongs to people and the government,” Ghani said.

The president is expected to summon a Loya Jirga, or grand gathering, in six weeks’ time to “work on the framework, limits and goals of the peace.”

Ghani, who is seeking re-election in July’s presidential polls, said that the elections were imperative for peace and stability in the country. He urged Afghans to participate in the vote, which has already been delayed once.

Meanwhile, several officials from his administration hailed the progress of the peace talks.

Sibghat Ahmadi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the Afghan government welcomed the “recent progress made in negotiations between Dr. Khalilzad and Taliban representatives.”

Meanwhile, Haroon Chakhansuri, Ghani’s spokesperson, said in a statement that they “welcome US efforts in the Afghan peace process.”

“We hope to witness a long-term comprehensive cease-fire with the Taliban, and hope that direct negotiations of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban begin soon,” he said.

The Doha dialogue follows sustained US military efforts for subduing the Taliban on the battlefield as part of US President Donald Trump’s 2017 strategy. 

However, despite an increased presence of US troops and an escalation of attacks by Afghan and US troops, the insurgents have continued to gain more ground.

Since assuming office, Trump has spoken on several occasions of his desire to ensure a complete pullout of US troops from Afghanistan — after nearly 17 years of the war — and appointed Khalilzad to initiate discussions with the Taliban for the process.

On Tuesday, Afghan-born Khalilzad tweeted about the progress of the peace talks after the latest round of talks.

“My time here was well spent. We made progress, and we had detailed discussions to reach an understanding on issues that are difficult and complicated,” he said, without divulging any other details. 

However, reports circulated on Wednesday that a truce and the Taliban’s negotiations with Ghani’s government were part of the Doha discussions.

The Taliban, for their part, have repeatedly insisted that they will not engage in direct talks with Kabul, suggesting that Ghani send his delegates instead.

The militants held their first direct and major discussions with non-state Afghan actors and major politicians — including Ghani’s archrivals — a few months ago in Russia, infuriating Kabul.

“This round of talks saw extensive and detailed discussions taking place regarding two issues that were agreed upon during the January talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement. “Those two issues were the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing anyone from harming others from Afghan soil.”

“Progress was achieved regarding both these issues. For now, both sides will deliberate over the achieved progress, share it with their respective leaderships.”

Atiqullah Amarkhail, a retired general, said that the dialogue had created hope for success and a breakthrough in the next round of talks.

“Optimism has gone up about the closeness of peace. They have agreed on two major issues and the other two matters (truce and start of talks between Kabul and Taliban) can take place at a later stage,” Amarkhail told Arab News.

After 17 years of US presence and 40 years of constant war in Afghanistan, attaining peace was a complicated process and one that would take time, he said.

US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 57 min 49 sec ago

US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.