US envoy in Qatar to press Taliban for end to offensive

Several rounds of meetings scheduled over three days between Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban as the armed group makes advances.

The Biden administration is determined to stick to its plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of August despite the Taliban's rapid strategic gains [Karim Jaafar/AFP]

A US peace envoy was back in Qatar on Tuesday to warn the Taliban not to pursue a military victory on the ground.

The US State Department said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, was in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to “help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan”.

Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Doha, on Tuesday said the talks started with the participation of envoys and diplomats from the US, the UK, the EU, the UN, China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

“Those who have not yet shown up here are the diplomats from Russia. They are expected later today, but it is unclear when,” he said.

“We have also spotted the delegation for the Afghan government which includes Dr Abdullah Abdullah. He is the chairman for Afghanistan’s high council for national reconciliation.”

He also said it was “less clear at this hour what role exactly the Taliban will have. They have representatives here in Doha. We’ve not been able to reach them in the last few hours. The spokespeople for the Taliban said earlier this morning they were unclear yet if they were going to be invited”.

Head of Afghanistan’s high Council for National reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah (2nd L) walks down a hotel lobby in Doha Karim Jaafar/AFP]

“The diplomats told us they want to find a way to come up with some kind of joint international plan to get things back on track when it comes to the intra-Afghan peace process and dialogue,” he said.

“They also want to come up with some type of joint response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.”

Taliban gains

The development comes amid a weekslong, relentless Taliban offensive as the US and NATO forces finalise their pullout from war-torn Afghanistan.

The Taliban fighters have captured five out of 34 provincial capitals in the country in less than a week.

They are now battling the Western-backed government for control of three others, including the city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, and the city of Kandahar, the capital in neighbouring Kandahar province.

The group’s sweep comes despite condemnations by the international community and the Taliban’s refusal to return to the negotiating table.

Khalilzad, the US envoy, would “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan”, the State Department said.

Meanwhile, the Taliban military chief released an audio message to his fighters on Tuesday, ordering them not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they conquer. The recording was shared on Twitter by the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Mohammad Naim.

In the nearly five-minute audio, Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, also tells the rebels to stay out of abandoned homes of government and security officials who have fled, leave marketplaces open and protect places of business, including banks.

It was not immediately clear if Taliban fighters on the ground would heed Yaqoob’s instructions.

On Monday, the Taliban announced that it had captured a sixth provincial capital in Afghanistan in four days.

The armed group’s spokesman claimed it had overrun Aybak, the capital of the northern province of Samangan.

‘It’s their struggle’

Amid the advance of the Taliban, the US is showing no signs of stepping up air attacks, with a Pentagon spokesman saying that Washington now sees the fight as one for Afghan political and military leaders to win or lose.

“When we look back, it’s going to come down to leadership and what leadership was demonstrated, or not,” by Afghans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference.

“It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle.”

US officials said military commanders have bluntly laid out their assessments that conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating.

Afghan special operations forces have been able to hold off the Taliban in key centres, including Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, they said. But in locations where the commandos have not been sent in, regular army forces have been overrun.

US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his top Middle East commander, General Frank McKenzie, on Monday, officials said.

But defence and military leaders have not provided any new recommendations to beef up US operations in defence of the Afghans.

The US has been launching up to a handful of air attacks a day on the Taliban and officials said there has so far been no order to increase them.

There are no US attack aircraft in Afghanistan as the troop withdrawal continues, so warplanes are travelling from several hours away to reach their targets.

Kirby refused to say how many air attacks the US has carried out in recent days and declined to say whether the Biden administration might continue the air attacks past Biden’s August 31 withdrawal date, given the Taliban advance.

In the meantime, “we will continue to support them … where and when feasible, understanding that it’s not always going to be feasible,″ Kirby said of the Afghan government and military leaders.

Senior officials from the White House National Security Council, Department of State, and Department of Defense were in close contact with US embassy officials in Kabul on Sunday, assessing the broader effect of the fall of Kunduz, the largest and most significant Taliban takeover, according to a senior administration official.

Afghan IDPs, who fled battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz and Takhar, collect food in Kabul on Monday [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

The administration official, however, indicated that the Biden administration remains determined to stick to its plan to end the US war in Afghanistan by the end of the month despite the Taliban’s rapid strategic gains.

The officials spoke to the Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing private deliberations.

Kirby acknowledged the fight on the ground is “clearly not going in the right direction”.

By Monday, with the US three weeks and one day from its deadline to end its military involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban appear to be gathering momentum.

The group was routed after the US invaded in the wake of the al-Qaeda-linked attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. The US and its NATO allies stayed on afterwards, partly in the hope of fostering a Kabul-based government and military capable of withstanding the Taliban once Western forces finally withdrew.

President Joe Biden has said he is honouring a withdrawal deal that President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban. But Biden has made clear he also is determined to extract US forces from their longest war.

The Biden administration says it will continue to support the Afghanistan military financially and logistically, including with contractors helping maintain the government’s air force, from outside Afghanistan after the withdrawal.

Courtesy: Afghanistan Analysts Network
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies