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.

Pakistan bracing for austere budget under IMF, finance chief says

Updated 25 May 2019

Pakistan bracing for austere budget under IMF, finance chief says

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is preparing a belt-tightening budget to tame its fiscal deficit, the de facto finance minister said on Saturday, adding that both civilian and military rulers agreed austerity measures were needed to stabilise the economy.
But Hafeez Shaikh, Prime Minister Imran Khan's top finance adviser, declined to say whether the military's hefty budget would be cut following last week's agreement in principle with the International Monetary Fund for a $6 billion loan.
The IMF has said the primary budget deficit should be trimmed by the equivalent of $5 billion, but previous civilian rulers have rarely dared to trim defence spending for fear of stoking tensions with the military.
Unlike some other civilian leaders in Pakistan's fragile democracy, Khan appears to have good relations with the country's powerful generals.
More than half of state spending currently goes on the military and debt-servicing costs, however, limiting the government's options for reducing expenditure.
"The budget that is coming will have austerity, that means that the government's expenditures will be put at a minimum level," Shaikh told a news conference in the capital Islamabad on Saturday, a few weeks before the budget for the 2019/20 fiscal year ending in June is due to be presented.
"We are all standing together in it whether civilians or our military," said Shaikh, a former finance minister appointed by Khan as part of a wider shake-up of his economic team in the last two months.
In the days since last week's agreement with the IMF, the rupee currency dropped 5% against the dollar and has lost a third of its value in the past year.
Under the IMF's terms, the government is expected to let the rupee fall to help correct an unsustainable current account deficit and cut its debt while trying to expand the tax base in a country where only 1% of people file returns.
Shaikh has been told by the IMF that the primary budget deficit -- excluding interest payments -- should be cut to 0.6% of GDP, implying a $5 billion reduction from the current projection for a deficit of 2.2% of GDP.
The next fiscal year's revenue collection target will be 5.55 trillion rupees ($36.88 billion), Shaikh told the news conference, highlighting the need for tough steps to broaden the tax base.