DOHA, Qatar — U.S. diplomats are trying to build on parts of the peace deal made with the Taliban last year, specifically the classified portions that outlined what military actions — on both sides — were supposed to be prohibited under the signed agreement, according to American, Afghan and Taliban officials.
The negotiations, which have been quietly underway for months, have morphed into the Biden administration’s last-ditch diplomatic effort to achieve a reduction in violence, which could enable the United States to still exit the country should broader peace talks fail to yield progress in the coming weeks.
If these discussions, and the separate talks between the Afghan government and Taliban falter, the United States will likely find itself with thousands of troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1. That’s the deadline by which all American military forces are meant to withdraw from the country under the 2020 agreement with the Taliban and would come at a time when the insurgent group likely will have begun its spring offensive against the beleaguered Afghan security forces.
Both of these conditions would almost certainly set back any progress made in the past months toward a political settlement, despite both the Trump and the Biden administrations’ fervent attempts to end the United States’ longest-running war.
two annexes of the 2020 deal, which were deemed classified by the Trump administration, is intended to stave off an insurgent victory on the battlefield during the peace talks by limiting Taliban military operations against Afghan forces, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with the negotiations. In return, the United States would push for the release of all Taliban prisoners still imprisoned by the Afghan government and the lifting of United Nations sanctions against the Taliban — two goals outlined in the original deal.
These new negotiations, which exclude representatives from the Afghan government, are being carried out amid a contentious logjam between the Taliban and the Afghans, despite pressure from international and regional actors on both sides to commit to some form of a path forward.
first reported by Tolo News, with requests that were not fully accepted by the U.S. negotiators and included severe restrictions on U.S. air power.
Many of the delays in securing a new deal to reduce violence stem from the original February 2020 agreement.
That deal loosely called for the Taliban to stop suicide attacks and large-scale offensives in exchange for the Americans forces scaling back drone strikes and raids, among other types of military assaults. But both sides interpreted those terms differently, officials said, and both have accused one another of violating the deal. The Taliban is also supposed to cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, but the U.S. intelligence community has seen little movement toward that goal.
Under the current arrangement, U.S. forces can defend their Afghan allies if they are being attacked, but the Taliban said U.S. airstrikes have been carried out against their fighters who were not attacking Afghan forces.
Digital spreadsheets maintained by the Taliban and viewed by The Times detail hundreds of purported U.S. violations. They record in detail the group’s wounded and killed, along with civilian casualties and property damage. However, the Taliban often do not distinguish between offensive operations carried out by Afghan security forces from those by U.S. forces, and several of the events The Times was able to independently verify from June 2020 did not involve American troops.
The new terms for a reduction in violence have been a serious point of contention during the past several months, during meetings frequently held at the Sharq Village and Spa, a luxurious resort in Doha, Qatar.
Meetings between American officials and the Taliban in Doha — including with high-level officials like then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in December — attempted to scale back Taliban attacks and stop the bloody assassination campaign wreaking havoc across the country, but made little headway.
With time running out, the Biden administration is hoping for more success, though these discussions continue to hit roadblocks.
Negotiations between the Afghans and the Taliban, which began in September, have practically come to a halt as the insurgent group has remained reluctant to discuss any future government or power-sharing deal while the United States remains noncommittal about whether it will withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1.
The Biden administration’s recent push for talks in Turkey could be promising, officials and experts said, but the Taliban have yet to agree to attend.
The insurgent group thinks Mr. Biden’s negotiators are manipulating the proposed agreement to reduce violence by asking for “extreme” measures, such as halting the use of roadside bombs and pausing attacks on checkpoints, according to people close to the negotiations.
Taliban negotiators say they believe the American requests equate to a cease-fire, while U.S. military officials say that if certain parameters are not clearly outlined, then the Taliban will shift their tactics to exploit any loopholes they can find — like they have done in the past.
Some of the more striking episodes happened in the past week when C.I.A.-backed militia forces were accused of killing more than a dozen civilians in a Taliban-controlled village in Khost Province in southeastern Afghanistan.
In retaliation, the Taliban authorized their fighters to attack the American military and C.I.A. base there and publicly took responsibility for the rocket attack that followed: a first for the insurgent group since it has mostly stopped, or refused to acknowledge, attacks against U.S. bases and troops, per the terms of the 2020 deal.
Some Taliban officials believe the C.I.A.-backed forces should be disbanded and their operations stopped if the insurgent group agrees to any further reduction in violence, according to people close to the negotiations, but it is unclear if the insurgent group has raised those concerns directly. Regardless, any such request is likely to fall on deaf ears as the U.S. military and intelligence community views these forces as some of the Afghans’ most effective, despite the litany of human rights abuses leveled against them.
The Khost incident highlights the difficulty of reaching an understanding when it comes to decreasing the intensity of the war, and the need for an international third-party monitoring body, such as the United Nations, in any future cease-fires or agreements to reduce violence, experts said.
It is unlikely the United States and Taliban will reach a new deal before May 1, analysts say, unless U.S. officials are willing to make serious concessions to prevent a violent offensive this spring, one that seems to already have started given the series of large attacks and assassinations by the Taliban in recent days.
Some experts have criticized the United States’ narrow focus on a short-term reduction of violence as a distraction from the larger effort of reaching a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“I am hard pressed to see what payoff there’s been for the amount of effort that has been put into trying to get limited violence reduction front-loaded in the peace process,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former top State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomacy under the previous two administrations. “It might be helpful for political optics in covering for an American withdrawal. But what’s going to make this stick afterward if there isn’t a real settlement? Nothing.”
Farooq Jan Mangal contributed reporting from Khost Province.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Three health workers, all women, working for the government’s polio vaccine campaign were shot dead in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, local officials said, only weeks after three women working in television were killed in the same city.
The women, all in their 20s, were going about their jobs in the bustling town near the border with Pakistan when they were gunned down in two separate attacks.
Semin, 24, and Basira, 20, who like many Afghans both went by only one name, were shot and killed by two gunmen as they entered a house in Jalalabad to vaccinate the children who lived there, the governor’s office said.
The two were going door to door in the city, a practice the Taliban have banned in the past in areas under their control.
Global Polio Eradication Initiative, is one of two countries where the disease has not been eradicated, trailing behind Pakistan.
Around the same time as Tuesday’s shootings, there was an explosion at the city’s regional hospital, officials said, in front of the compound where the vaccines are stored. There were no casualties, but windows were shattered.
has yet to definitively say whether it will meet the May 1 deadline for withdrawing all American forces, per an agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February 2020.
“My niece Basira was a poor girl,” said Haji Moqbel Ahmad, a tribal elder in Jalalabad, who added that the woman had not been threatened before. “She was shot and killed while she was doing her job.”
Basira, a vaccine worker since her teens, had been enlisted for a five-day vaccine campaign for which she would be paid less than $30, officials said.
The month began with the assassination of three women who worked for a television station in Jalalabad. A female television and radio presenter from the same station was gunned down in much the same way in December. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both incidents.
The New York Times documented the deaths of at least 136 civilians and 168 security force members in such targeted killings in 2020, more than nearly any other year of the war. So far, 2021 has not seen any reprieve from the same kind of violence.
The Taliban are increasing pressure on government and society, asserting dominance as stuttering, intermittent negotiations take place to settle the Afghan conflict.
wrote on Twitter. “My deepest condolences for the victims’ families as we call for justice,” he wrote. “Attacking vaccinators is as heartless as it is inexplicable.”
Zabihullah Ghazi contributed reporting from Jalalabad and Fahim Abed contributed from Kabul, Afghanistan.
NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.
On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.
Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.
soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.
On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.
As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.
But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.
In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”
But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.
“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.
On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.
In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.
a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.
The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.
It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.
In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.
But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.
Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.
over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.
“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.
Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.
Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.
The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.
Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.
In a jungle in the borderlands of Myanmar, the troops sweated through basic training. They learned how to load a rifle, pull the pin of a hand grenade and assemble a firebomb.
These cadets are not members of Myanmar’s military, which seized power last month and quickly imposed a battlefield brutality on the country’s populace. Instead, they are an eclectic corps of students, activists and ordinary office workers who believe that fighting back is the only way to defeat one of the world’s most ruthless armed forces.
“I see the military as wild animals who can’t think and are brutal with their weapons,” said a woman from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, who was now in the forest for a week of boot camp. Like others who have joined the armed struggle, she did not want her name published for fear that the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, would target her.
reign of terror. The Tatmadaw has cracked down on peaceful protesters and unarmed bystanders alike, killing at least 275 people since the coup, according to a monitoring group.
Other forms of resistance have continued in Myanmar. A mass civil disobedience campaign has idled the economy, with a nationwide strike on Wednesday leaving towns devoid of business activity. In creative acts of defiance, protesters have lined up rows of stuffed animals and origami cranes as stand-ins for demonstrators who could get shot.
But there is a growing recognition that such efforts may not be enough, that the Tatmadaw needs to be countered on its own terms. Last week, remnants of the ousted Parliament, who consider themselves the legitimate government, said that a “revolution” was needed to save the country. They have called for the formation of a federal army that respects various ethnic groups, not just the majority Bamar.
“If diplomacy fails, if the killings continue, the people of Myanmar will be forced to defend themselves,” said Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for the ousted Parliament who is on the run after having been charged with high treason.
ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
The country has trembled as the Tatmadaw has brought its war machine to the cities, imprisoning Myanmar’s civilian leaders last month and erasing a decade of political and economic reform.
Since then, dozens of young protesters have been killed by single gunshots to the head. Security forces have fired into homes at random, leaving families cowering in back rooms. On Tuesday, a 7-year-old girl sitting at home in her father’s lap was shot in the city of Mandalay, in what appeared to be a collateral death. (Hundreds of protesters were released on Wednesday after weeks of detention.)
The Tatmadaw is flouting the international rules of war. Security forces have fired at ambulances and tortured detainees. Given the brutality, members of Myanmar’s frontline of democracy say there is no choice but to take up arms.
Most days in the concrete conflict zones of Yangon, Ko Soe Win Naing, a 26-year-old sailor, prepares for war: a GoPro camera affixed to his helmet, a balaclava over his head, vials of tear gas in his vest pockets, a sheathed sword on his back and a gas mask at the ready. His weapon of choice is a firework fashioned into a sort of grenade.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against the generals who locked her up for 15 years. (The award was tarnished by her defense of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.)
But most struggles in Myanmar have involved guns and slingshots. In the mountainous periphery of the country, ethnic armed groups have been fighting for autonomy for decades. After soldiers gunned down hundreds of protesters in 1988, thousands of students and activists fled into the forests and formed armed groups that fought alongside ethnic insurgencies.
Of late, their tactics have extended to information warfare. On Wednesday, anti-coup protesters said they had launched hacking attacks on two military-linked banks.
For the new generation, the decision to fight is born of a desire to protect what the country has gained over the past decade. Myanmar was once one of the most isolated countries on Earth, as a xenophobic and economically inept junta cleaved the country from the international community. Then came tentative political reforms, an internet link to the world and chances at private-sector jobs.
The notion that Myanmar might return to a frightened past has galvanized some protesters. One young woman, who is about to start military training in the jungle, said she remembered huddling as a child with her family and listening secretly to BBC radio broadcasts, an act that once could have earned imprisonment.
“I decided to risk my life and fight back any possible way I can,” she said. “If we oppose nationwide in unison, we will make the military have sleepless nights and insecure lives, just as they have done to us.”
The security forces, she continued, are following orders and lack a greater purpose.
“We have our political faith, we have our dreams,” she said. “This is the fight in which we have to use our brains and our bodies.”
If any armed rebellion is to succeed, it will need the backing of the ethnic insurgencies that have long been at war with the Tatmadaw. Last week, the Kachin Independence Army, which represents the Kachin of northern Myanmar, launched a surprise strike against the Tatmadaw.
On Thursday, five Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by the Karen National Liberation Army, which fights for the Karen ethnicity. Last year, hundreds of Tatmadaw troops died while battling another ethnic insurgency in western Rakhine State.
“If ethnic armed groups launch offensives, it could help relieve pressure on the protesters in the cities,” said Padoh Saw Hser Bwe, a general secretary of the Karen National Union.
With the Tatmadaw’s most notorious brigades now stationed in the cities, focused on anti-coup protesters rather than ethnic civil war, the military’s killing continues unabated.
On Monday in Mandalay, Ko Tun Tun Aung, 14, wandered out of his home to grab a pot of water. A bullet pierced his chest, killing him instantly, according to his relatives. At least seven others were also shot dead in the same neighborhood that day. Two were rescue workers.
Ko Thet Aung, a 23-year-old frontline defender, is from the same Mandalay neighborhood where the killings occurred. For three weeks, he has been manning barricades and dodging gunfire.
“The more they crack down, the more we are motivated to fight back,” he said. “We are from Generation Z, but I would call ourselves Gen-P — Generation Protection. I will die protecting my country at the front lines.”