Afghan Peace Prospects Dim as Outrage Grows Over Taliban Violence

KABUL, Afghanistan (The Washington Post) -
Afghan security personnel stand guard as black smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel after an attack, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Afghanistan’s dwindling prospects for peace took another downward turn Tuesday when both Afghan officials and Taliban leaders issued sharply bellicose messages after a spate of insurgent attacks in the capital and a comment by President Donald Trump that the violence had soured him on peace negotiations with Afghan terrorists.

“Believe me, I will take revenge,” President Ashraf Ghani said after an evening prayer service in the capital, visibly angry after a week of suicide bombings and armed raids that took more than 100 lives and wounded nearly 300 people. The country’s enemies, he said, “should know that Afghans do not have a president who will give in.”

In a separate formal statement, Ghani’s chief spokesman said that by launching such horrific violence, “the Taliban has lost the opportunity for peace talks. From now on, peace must be sought on the battleground.”

The Afghan leader’s abrupt shift, after months of calling for peace talks, echoed remarks made by Pres. Trump in Washington on Monday, reacting to the series of deadly terrorist attacks beginning Jan. 20 that targeted civilians in a luxury hotel, at a British charity and on a busy city block near a hospital, as well as soldiers guarding a military academy.

“I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now,” the U.S. president told reporters in Washington on Monday before a White House meeting with U.N. Security Council members. “It’s a whole different fight over there. They’re killing people left and right. Innocent people are being killed left and right.”

Until now, Pres. Trump’s stated policy has been that the U.S. military should intensify its training of Afghan defense forces and improve their capacity, with the goal of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table and settling the 16-year conflict. But that goal appears to be dimming – and possibly shifting toward one of military victory – as the insurgents intensify their attacks.

The Taliban have resisted participating in peace talks for the past several years, and efforts to hold negotiations have faltered and died repeatedly. The terrorists have insisted that all foreign troops must leave the country before any peaceful settlement can be negotiated.

Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, departed from his usual diplomatic style and echoed Ghani’s impassioned outrage over the recent carnage. During a meeting with visiting officials from Norway on Tuesday, Abdullah said that the Taliban are “not prepared for peace,” but are “continuing to kill women and children with terroristic attacks . . . they must be suppressed.”

The Taliban, for its part, seemed to relish the new belligerence their violence has aroused in both Washington and Kabul. In a lengthy statement Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said that Pres. Trump had “exposed his war-mongering face” and had proved that “the American invaders and their supporters use peace as mere rhetoric while their true strategy is war and occupation.” Having “spurned” peace, the statement said, “all responsibility of war and bloodletting will also fall on them.”

Afghanistan, the terrorists’ statement said, has a long history of “bringing arrogant invaders to their senses.” The current conflict is “a war between truth and falsehood, a war of freedom fighters against occupiers.” With the help of All-ah, it concluded, “Afghanistan shall become the graveyard for another empire.”

A senior administration official, on a visit to Kabul, dismissed the suggestion that U.S. policy had changed from seeking peace talks to defeating the Taliban militarily. John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday evening that the Trump administration was still committed to seeking a peaceful resolution to the war.

The recent violence “has certainly given us pause,” Sullivan said, “but it won’t change our policy,” which is to apply pressure on the battlefield to “convince the Taliban that no military solution is possible, and that ultimately peace and security will be determined by talks.”