Afghanistan officials on Monday lashed out at the Biden administration’s “coercive” proposal to jump-start stalled peace talks with a UN-led summit and an interim government.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said in a leaked letter to Afghan president Ashraf Ghani that he was pursuing a “high-level diplomatic effort” with the UN and countries including China, Russia and Iran to “discuss a unified approach” to peace in the war-torn central Asian country.
In the draft “peace agreement” proposed by the US, which was leaked alongside Blinken’s letter in the Afghan press, the first step is to create a transitional government including the Taliban until fresh elections can be held. It also outlines conditions for a ceasefire, which requires the Taliban to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, according to the text of the leaked proposals, which were published by Afghan news website TOLOnews.
Blinken also warned in his missive that the Biden administration had “not ruled out any option” and that it was considering the full withdrawal of forces by May 1 to end America’s longest-running war. The US Department of State did not comment immediately on the leaked proposals.
The letter comes as peace talks involving the Afghan government and the Taliban have ground to a halt, with the US hoping to exit swiftly even as the security situation rapidly deteriorates in the country.
The capital city of Kabul has been hit by a wave of assassinations on civil society, including journalists and judges, underscoring the fragility of the democratic gains made in the country.
In response to the letter, Ghani’s government said it would not bend on its demand to hold fresh elections for a transfer of power.
“We will not ignore our constitution,” vice-president Amrullah Saleh was quoted as saying by Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews on Monday. “We can discuss the election and the date but will never let anyone take the people’s right to vote.”
“We will never accept a coerced and imposed peace,” Saleh added according to the Afghan news outlet, which first reported Blinken’s proposals.
The letter was sent to Afghan officials before US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad landed in Kabul on his first trip for the Biden administration last week. Khalilzad held talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday.
“It is clear that this is a diplomatic pressure campaign, this is not a brainstorming session,” said Andrew Watkins, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. “This has the potential to cause so much instability.”
The Biden administration is considering whether to uphold a Trump-era pledge to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops by a May 1 deadline as part of a deal struck with the Taliban last year.
As vice-president during Barack Obama’s presidency Joe Biden opposed the surge in US forces to 100,000 and has, like his predecessor Donald Trump, said he wants to end America’s “forever wars”.
If Washington fails to withdraw troops it would be likely to lead to a renewed campaign by the Taliban targeting US forces. But US officials and experts caution total withdrawal would lead to significant Taliban gains and threaten the government in Kabul.
Arif Rafiq, president of political risk firm Vizier Consulting, said: “The Biden administration is throwing a Hail Mary pass. I don’t think there is any desire to stretch out its presence in Afghanistan any longer.”
Since the US and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in February 2020, the Taliban have expanded its reach in Afghanistan and is in position to take over several provincial capitals, according to security analysts.
“The US has lost patience with the inter-Afghan track in terms of negotiating a broad-based political settlement,” said Rafiq.
“Ultimately, this is about how the US chooses to leave. The Afghan government has a desire to be an equal, but it is not the dominant power in the relationship.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington