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Peace talks ‘under threat’ as Taliban prepare for major spring offensive

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(Last Updated On: February 17, 2021)

Unusually intense fighting in the winter by Taliban insurgents has spurred Afghan government preparations for more violence in the warmer spring, which international players fear will further endanger the nation’s fragile peace process, Reuters reported.

This comes after a sharp increase in attacks by the group since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha in February last year. 

General Scott Miller, the head of US forces and the NATO-led Resolute Support mission told Reuters that “Taliban violence is much higher than historical norms.”

“It just doesn’t create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan,” he said.

Typically fighting quietens down during the snowy winter months before the Taliban launch a “spring offensive” around March. However, this winter, fighting has been intense. 

Miller said that the fighting now was an indicator that not only would there be a spring offensive – a move many diplomats view as against the spirit of the Doha agreement – but that it could be more intense than before, Reuters reported.

This also comes as negotiations have largely stalled in Doha in recent weeks and Taliban leaders have left Qatar, a senior state department official said, leading to growing fears that talks could be on the brink of collapse.

“If the violence isn’t reduced, it’s going to make a peace process very, very difficult; it would be very difficult for any side to make the necessary compromises,” Miller said.

The Afghan government has instructed security forces to carry out a comprehensive troop restructuring and design operations to prepare for a “tough and hard” spring offensive, two government sources told Reuters.

They added that Afghanistan’s special forces from different institutions such as the military and police are being streamlined to operate under one command. Highly experienced commanders have been appointed to key areas, and security forces were planning to conduct more airstrikes to avoid losses on the ground.

An Afghan National Security Council spokesman said they were “ready for any kind of war”, though they remained in “active defence” mode.

Four Taliban sources said that most of their commanders had in recent weeks cut short annual training sessions after being called back to the battlefield to prepare for intensive fighting.

Three residents in areas dominated by the Taliban in north-eastern Afghanistan had noticed a pick-up in the group’s activity in recent weeks, telling Reuters they had seen Taliban fighters moving en masse, holding meetings in mosques and beginning food and recruitment drives.

“In the past two weeks the topics Taliban preachers preach, especially on Friday prayers… have changed,” said a tribal elder from Kunduz province who asked not to be named for security reasons. “They preach about… fighting against invasion, and they openly invite people to join them. It’s a clear message that they are preparing for another fight this spring.”

A member of what the Taliban considers its special forces told Reuters that the group was preparing to act when there was an announcement about foreign troops.

“If they don’t leave Afghanistan on the preset date then the USA, NATO and the world will face a dangerous war, a war that never happened in the past 20 years,” he said.

A Taliban spokesman did not reply to a request for comment on the spring offensive.

The administration of US President Joe Biden is reviewing its plans for Afghanistan, including whether to stick to the May 1 deadline in the troop withdrawal agreement former President Trump’s administration signed with the Taliban in February 2020.

Miller said his command recognised that foreign forces could be a target if the Taliban view the deal as breached.

Experts and diplomats see a vanishing window of opportunity for talks to survive, although sides say they are committed negotiating, Reuters reported.

“Talks seem already very close to falling apart,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute. “The trouble is that (Washington) seems to grossly underestimate just how bad things could get and how quickly that could happen.”

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Pakistan to increase number of flights to Afghanistan

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(Last Updated On: February 25, 2021)

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) announced Thursday it will increase the number of international flights to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan.

According to the PIA, the national flag-carrier will increase its flights to Afghanistan from four to five a week.

“Expanding our network in Afghanistan by increasing weekly flights from 4 to 5. Best service & most comfortable aircraft on this scenic route,” PIA said in a tweet Thursday.

PIA also stated it will launch direct flights to Azerbaijan’s Baku from March 14. The flights will be operated twice a week from Lahore city of Pakistan

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German cabinet agrees to extend Afghanistan mission by 10 months

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(Last Updated On: February 25, 2021)

The German government on Wednesday agreed to extend its military mandate in Afghanistan by at least another 10 months.

Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported Thursday that the new draft mandate still needs the approval of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

The current mandate is set to expire at the end of March.

Under the draft agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, German troops would be able to stay in the country until January 31, 2022, Deutsche Welle reported. .

Government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said the new date “takes account appropriately of the complex situation in Afghanistan and also makes possible the flexibility necessary to be able to react if the volatile security and threat situation there changes.”

With over 1,100 troops, Germany has the second-largest contingent after the United States in the NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

Seibert said that the maximum limit of 1,300 German troops will remain unchanged in the new mandate.

This comes after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that no final decision had been made on the future of foreign troops in Afghanistan – despite the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline.

Stoltenberg acknowledged that the military alliance is facing “many dilemmas” over its continued engagement in the country.

US President Joe Biden is reviewing Donald Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban, which sets May 1 as the deadline for a total US troop withdrawal.

Last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the decision to withdraw troops should not be rushed, rather than being “slavishly” bound to the May deadline. Instead, the drawback of troops should be linked to slow-paced peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, he has said.

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Pakistan won’t support any attempt by Taliban to recapture power: ISPR general

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(Last Updated On: February 25, 2021)

Pakistan’s Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar said Wednesday that Pakistan has done what it can to promote peace efforts in Afghanistan and that Islamabad will not support the Taliban in any attempt to “recapture Kabul”.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, Iftikhar said: “Even Afghan leaders are admitting that Pakistan has done utmost for peace in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan’s The News International quoted him as saying that it is for the citizens and the government of Afghanistan to determine the future of their country, and how the negotiating process would progress.

“We only aim for a long-lasting peace in Afghanistan,” he said.

On a question on NATO forces’ likely drawdown and a possible return of the Taliban, he said: “Afghanistan now is not what it was in ’90s and the state infrastructure cannot be trounced easily, and Pakistan also has changed.

“It’s impossible for the Taliban to recapture Kabul and that Pakistan would support them. It isn’t going to happen,” he said.

The News reported that he maintained the policy of the Pakistan government to extend a hand of peace to the neighbours was very clear.

This comes just days after Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov visited Islamabad to encourage Pakistan’s support for a meeting in Moscow to help facilitate the stalled Afghan peace process.

Kabulov told Russian news agency Sputnik that his “leadership has set the task of finding ways that will facilitate the start of inter-Afghan negotiations through consultations within the framework of the enlarged troika. We agreed on such a meeting with the American special envoy [Zalmay] Khalilzad. It can happen in Moscow.”

The “enlarged troika” was in reference to what Kabulov said was a group that evolved over the last two years, including countries with the most influence on the Afghan peace processes – the United States, China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia.

VOA reported that the Moscow format was a Russian initiative to organize regional stakeholders involved in the Afghan peace process. Its second meeting in 2018 brought the Taliban to an international forum for the first time. The U.S. sent representatives to observe.

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