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As the Trump administration considers withdrawing the last remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Trump this month restarted peace talks with the Taliban. But while the White House tries to get the Taliban to share power in Afghanistan's government, securing a peace deal's approval from the country's multitude of ethnic groups will be another challenge. Jane Ferguson reports.
An insider attack in eastern Afghanistan overnight has left at least 23 Afghan soldiers dead.
Officials said the attack took place at a military base in Ghazni province. The soldiers had been sleeping when a Taliban infiltrator, who was on duty at the base, shot and killed them before taking weapons and equipment and returning to the Taliban insurgency.
This latest attack comes just after the United States took what it's calling a "pause" in peace talks with the Taliban — and after an earlier attack Wednesday that killed two Afghan civilians and wounded dozens more near Bagram airfield.
But if and when those talks resume, they're still leaving major players out of the conversation: the Afghan government itself, as well as other prominent figures.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson has our story.
In this stunning corner of Northern Afghanistan called the Panjshir Valley, the Tajik people have long claimed their ancestral home. It's from these lands that for centuries tajiks launched campaigns against invaders and other enemies, most recently the Taliban. On this day, the 30-year-old Tajik leader Ahmad Massoud is ready to launch a new kind of campaign as he begins a political career to lead his people.
We think this is a golden opportunity for Afghanistan that for the very first time a superpower such as America and regional powers such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and other countries, they all agree that a peace must come and the war must end in Afghanistan.
Important guests gather at his family homestead and peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban are all that anyone wants to discuss. Over breakfast in the garden, Massoud says he is well aware of the White House's determination to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. His people have been allied with the Americans from the start and they know any opportunity for peace is precious.
So we need, you know, to be very grateful and to use it with utmost kind of respect and clarity so the people trust and believe and be a part of this, seem to be a part of this peace process. That's first and foremost that's how important and how critical and how amazing this opportunity is.
Despite this opportunity, it comes with skepticism and bad memories of the time before the war when the Taliban ruled. Back then, Massoud's father tried to make peace with them.
My father all alone he went to the center and the camp of Taliban with no guards, with no bodyguards, with nothing, just with the simple fact and intention that I want to end this war and let's make a peace. They did not accept it, and they continued, you know, the war, they continued the bloodshed.
Massoud's father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a legendary Tajik militia commander who had led Afghan forces against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Moscow finally pulled out in 1989, and he fought the Taliban when it seized power shortly after. For years, he cautioned the U.S. about the growing threat of a radical new group basing itself in Afghanistan called Al Qaeda. Then two days before 9/11 Al Qaeda assassins killed him. Removing a leader who would have been a crucial, strategic partner in America's military response to the terror attacks. The elder Massoud's legacy remains colossal among his people who now would welcome an end to the fighting, but they say, not at any price.
Unfortunately how the peace process has been managed so far, it's not clear what are the things that they are signing with the Taliban, what's the agreement with the Taliban.
It's highly likely the Taliban will try to grab power in Kabul, what happens?
And keep their forces. Well in that case this is not a peace. This is a coup and we do not have a good experiences in our history, you know, from coups and we do not accept it, we do not allow it.
Would you fight the Taliban in that case?
If they want an oppressive ideology, if they want to force their ideology and their belief and their system, their political system and structure upon the people of Afghanistan with gun and with force, in that case we are here to defend our people.
Bringing home American troops home from Afghanistan was a major campaign pledge by President Trump in 2016. In September, he came close to a deal with the Taliban that would have seen the start of a drawdown of U.S. troops. That deal fell through, but during a surprise Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan, Trump declared that talks will start once again. All this back-and-forth is leaving people in the Panjshir Valley worried. As the young Massoud addresses his followers in the shadow of his father's mausoleum, there is deep anxiety that Trump will give too much away to the Taliban in his rush to leave the country.
They are addressing them as though they are addressing them as a powerful group. And they want to bring them into the political stage of Afghanistan. If the Americans do that we will fight the Taliban.
There's also apprehension over the sight of Taliban commanders. For so many years ostracized, now travelling the world treated like dignitaries. An informal amnesty has enabled their leaders to travel internationally to discuss the peace talks.
People are worried that the Taliban are being made stronger by the Americans. They want to bring them back into power in a brutal way. That's why people are concerned.
U.S. Envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has said America wants to create peace between all Afghan factions.
My overall goal is at the direction of the President and the Secretary of State, not to seek a withdrawal agreement, but a peace agreement. The other issues that must be dealt with are issues of a roadmap for Afghanistan's political future to end the Afghan War.
It's not clear yet if a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban would also lead to a deal between the Taliban and the current government in Kabul. So far, the group has refused to recognize the Afghan government, calling it an American puppet. Meanwhile, if the U.S. rushes to leave without guarantees there is a strong possibility of a deadly schism among non-Taliban groups, similar to that of the 1990s when competing ethnic militias, led by warlords, battled for control of Kabul's streets and the entire country.
Is that a risk?
Absolutely. And that's why it must be handled very carefully and delicately.
Hamdullah Mohib is the National Security Adviser to the Afghan President.
I think we have been insisting on an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process not because just for the matter of protocol. It's because we have seen failed peace processes in Afghanistan that have resulted in violence and destruction in our country in the past. And not in a very faraway past, very recent past, in my lifetime we have seen that.
So far, the Kabul Government has been locked out of negotiations by Washington. Yet, there's no avoiding, if the Trump Administration makes a deal with the Taliban, talks between the group and the Afghan Government would be the next, more difficult step.
an intra-Afghan negotiation will encompass much more. It will talk about governance and how the country is run in the future, it will talk about power sharing, how do we re-adjust our security forces, political posturing, our foreign policies, it will include a lot of different aspects and to be able to come to an agreement on that it will definitely require time and it will be, it will be a difficult phase.
Exactly what kind of Afghan Government the Taliban would talk to, however, is not clear. September's presidential elections in Afghanistan were a disaster due to low voter turnout and disputes over the results. Two months after voting, a winner has yet to be announced. While campaigns for both incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his competitor Dr. Abdullah Abdullah are claiming victory. Trump's meeting with the Afghan leader on his Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan is seen as validation by Ghani's camp, but there is still no guarantee the Taliban will recognize his legitimacy. Former Mujahideen warlord and follower of Massoud, Gul Haider, battled the Taliban and Al Qaeda alongside the CIA and U.S. Special Forces in early 2002. He says the main challenge for any Afghan government will be getting the Taliban to lay down arms.
Many of the sons of former commanders in the Mujahideen are fighting and dying within the security forces. In that situation if they bring the Taliban back into politics then that will create a backlash because they have committed a lot of atrocities, if the leadership want to be in government then all the Taliban should surrender. Their fighters should leave their weapons and they should be reintroduced into the government forces. I am not afraid of fighting the Taliban. Back then we fought them with our bare hands.
Back in the Panjshir, most are resigned to American troops one day packing up and going.
I'm not nervous about Americans leaving, they came with their own will and they will leave with their own will. But the people of Afghanistan always stood on their ground and they never let any invasion to be successful and if any other invasion happens if any other war breaks out, again my trust is in Afghan people not Americans.
Persuading Afghans like Ahmad Massoud that an American deal with the Taliban is a withdrawal and not a surrender will be tough. Leaving behind a country at peace even tougher.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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