KABUL: The US special envoy to Afghanistan on Friday announced a “pause” in peace talks with the Taliban after the militant group launched an intense hours-long attack on a key US military airfield north of Kabul.
Zalmay Khalilzad said he was “outraged” about the raid on the Bagram base which came just a week after he had resumed negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar.
In a tweet Khalilzad added: “(The Taliban) must show they are willing and able to respond to Afghan desire for peace. We are taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic.”
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman who is based at the group’s political headquarters in Qatar, tweeted that both sides had decided to have a few days’ break “for consultation.”
Peace talks had got underway again following American President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram base two weeks ago, during which he announced the restart of dialogue aimed at ending the long-running Afghan conflict.
Trump had called off negotiations in September after a Taliban attack in Kabul killed an American serviceman.
In line with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the American leader had said a cease-fire was a must for relaunching peace discussions, while some US diplomats, including Khalilzad, viewed a reduction of violence as essential for the process to continue.
Following the latest pause in talks, Ghani’s chief spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told Arab News: “Our position has been very clear. The Taliban must cease violence.”
However, there had been no pledge from the Taliban side or Afghan and US-led troops to halt attacks, neither when the talks were held in the past, nor during the latest discussions.
Wednesday’s pre-dawn attack on Bagram lasted more than 10 hours and forced the US military to use a fighter jet and helicopter gunships against the Taliban insurgents.
At least two Afghan civilians were killed, and more than 80 others injured, including five Georgian soldiers, during the fighting.
Khalilzad and US diplomats had held at least 10 rounds of secret talks with the Taliban prior to Trump’s September intervention to halt them. In his tweet, Shaheen said the latest meeting had been “very good and friendly.”
Analyst Akbar Polad said the pause following the Bagram assault was a blow to the peace process and “means a continuation of fighting and more pressure on the Taliban in the future. Either the Taliban do not know or are given false advice for launching attacks like (the one on) Bagram and claiming responsibility,” he told Arab News.
“The Taliban are given the illusion that they are the victors of the war, (that) they will replace the current government. When they conduct attacks, they will further face isolation in society as Afghans suffer the most, and because the Taliban refuse to talk with the government,” Polad added.
The resumption of talks last week, in the middle of a deepening political crisis over September’s presidential vote in Afghanistan, raised hopes of a possible breakthrough in the latest chapter of the war, which began with the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led campaign in late 2001.
A few weeks earlier, the Taliban and the US exchanged prisoners – an American and Australian – both professors at the American University of Afghanistan – for three militants jailed by the Afghan government.
The government has not taken part in the talks because of objections by the Taliban.
Ghani has been pushing for a truce before any discussions – either between the Taliban and the Americans, or between the Taliban and the government – take place.
The Taliban insisted they would only announce a truce after the US had agreed on a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
According to the Afghan government, however, the militant group’s political leaders based in Qatar do not have much clout over Taliban military commanders in the field.