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Today in Moscow, the U.S. and half a dozen other countries are holding a summit on the best way to end the war in Afghanistan, launched by the U.S. nearly 20 years ago. President Joe Biden recently said it would be "tough" to pull American troops out of the nation by May as planned by the Trump administration. How does that affect the prospects of peace in the country? Nick Schifrin explores.
Today, in Moscow, the U.S.-and-a-half dozen countries are holding a summit about Afghanistan and how best to end the war that the U.S. launched almost 20 years ago.
To discuss the prospects for peace and the Biden administration's Afghanistan policy, we turn to Nick Schifrin.
So, hello, Nick.
So, tell us, what do we know about what's being discussed in Moscow? And how does that fit in with the Biden administration's approach?
Moscow has hosted these kinds of talks for years, Judy, but U.S. officials hope that these talks begin an international diplomatic push that leads to a peace deal in Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal, ahead of an impending deadline.
The talks brought the American, the Russians, the Chinese, the Qataris, an Afghan delegation, including former President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban around one table.
The U.S. is trying to rally international opinion in order to pressure the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire and the Afghan government to step down. In a draft peace proposal first reported by Tolo News, the U.S. is calling for replacing the current government with a transitional peace government, a new constitution written by a committee that is almost half-Taliban, new Taliban lawmakers, a new Supreme Court that is almost half-Taliban, and a national cease-fire.
And Secretary of State Tony Blinken wrote a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urging Ghani to develop constructive positions and ended with an unmistakable threat: "The United States has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May the 1st."
That is the withdrawal date the U.S. and the Taliban agreed to last February under President Trump, so long as the Taliban talked peace and prevented al-Qaida from having a safe haven in Afghanistan.
The implication of it all, Judy, the U.S. is asking the Afghan president and the government to step down before a negotiated peace deal.
So, tell us, how is the Afghan government responding to that?
A senior Afghan official tells me they welcome the international diplomatic push, but point out that the U.S. has not delivered a promised reduction in violence, and also calls the Biden approach fast food, as in, it's forcing everybody to consume something that is too quick to succeed.
And President Ghani himself has insisted that, if he steps down, he will do so with a new election, and he criticized the new U.S. approach.
Ashraf Ghani (through translator):
Any institution can write a fantasy on a piece of paper and suggest a solution for Afghanistan. I advise those who go to this or that game to gain power is that political power in Afghanistan has a singular gate. And that is the vote of the Afghan people.
Senior U.S. officials tell me that that is not good enough, that the government must agree to step down without a new election.
As for the Taliban, Judy, they reject the part of the peace proposal that requires them to have a national cease-fire before a piece agreement.
And, Nick, tell us more about what is behind this push by the Biden administration. And how are analysts on the outside judging this?
President Trump pushed for as rapid a withdrawal from Afghanistan as possible.
And that led to that 2020 deal that required the U.S. to withdraw by May the 1st. And senior Biden officials say that that has left them in an almost impossible position. They could abide by the deal and withdraw, but that would reduce U.S. leverage over peace talks.
And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently told national security advisers it would also lead to the disintegration of the Afghan government, or at least a very violent civil war.
Or the U.S. could ignore the deadline, but that would leave the Taliban to resume attacks on U.S. troops. And this week, President Biden criticized the deal, suggesting that it had boxed him into a corner.
Pres. Joe Biden:
That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out.
But May 1 is tough?
Could happen, but it is tough.
So, the administration is pushing for this diplomatic progress to make progress in the next few weeks. But analysts say that is not a lot of time.
And they say that a provisional government would likely be too weak to actually survive.
Take a listen to the International Crisis Group's Laurel Miller, who urges the Biden team to support the current government.
Leaving behind an Afghan government, as dysfunctional and weak as it may be, but that's still standing, is better for Afghanistan, better for U.S. interests, than leaving behind a cobbled-together transitional government that has no real foundation in consensus, that would not survive an American withdrawal or the collapse of a peace process, and that would simply lead to the collapse of the Afghan state as we know it.
I don't think a genuine peace process, which takes time, can be replaced by a quickie peace process that tries to take short cuts.
Miller and other analysts have other ideas, including a six-month extension of the withdrawal deadline to try and make more diplomatic progress or putting the U.N. in charge of peace talks.
They say they do not want the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. But the fact is, Judy, Afghan security forces admit they cannot secure their own country without U.S. help. The Taliban has provincial capitals surrounded, and a campaign of assassinations have left many Afghans feeling very unsafe.
But the diplomatic push will continue, Judy, even if it's hard to succeed. Next month, there will be an even higher-level summit about Afghanistan in Turkey among foreign ministers.
No easy answers here.
Nick Schifrin covering it all for us.
Thank you, Nick.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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