More than a year of US-Taliban negotiations bore formal fruit Feb. 29 with the signing in Doha of what is being called a "peace deal" by Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, named as leader of the Islamist group. The pact calls for the US to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments under the agreement. Afghanistan's government must release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before March 10, after which the "intra-Afghan" talks are to start, with the aim of negotiating a permanent ceasefire. The signing of the pact follows a one-week "Reduction in Violence" by the Taliban. (Khaama Press, NPR, Al Jazeera)
The utterly surreal news that Taliban leaders were invited to Camp David—a week before the 9-11 commemoration, no less!—will further fuel the perverse fantasy that Trump is a hippie pacifist. So it is almost comforting that the meeting was axed, and on the 9-11 commemoration in Washington, Trump was back to his blustering, bellicose self. "The last four days, we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue," he boasted. The Taliban responded in kind, releasing a statement saying that Trump "will soon regret" cancelling the peace talks. (Khaama Press, CBS)
Last week we were treated to the perverse spectacle of the Trump administration, which is establishing its own incipient concentration camp system for undocumented immigrants, feigning concern with the mass detention of the Uighurs in China's "re-education camps." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (whose hypocrisy on this matter we have noted before) on July 18 called China's treatment of the Uighurs the "stain of the century," and accused Beijing of pressuring countries not to attend a US-hosted conference on religious freedom then opening in Washington. (Reuters) At the conference, Donald Trump actually met at the Oval Office with Jewher Ilham, daughter of the imprisoned Uighur scholar Ilham Tothi. (SCMP)
In the latest of mounting attacks across Afghanistan, a bomb blast near Kabul University left eight people dead and some 30 wounded July 19. Four days earlier, a roadside bomb killed at least 11 pilgrims riding a truck in the southern province of Kandahar, headed for the shrine that houses the tomb of Sufi Shah Agha, a companion and relative of the Prophet Mohammad. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Kandahar authorities blamed the Taliban, which often uses roadside bombs to target security forces in the province. Days before that, on July 12, at least six people were killed and 14 wounded when a suicide bomber targeted a wedding celebration in Nangarhar province.
Direct talks between US officials and the Taliban are advancing in Qatar, aimed at ending the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan. Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for the first time met the US special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, on March 4. (Al Jazeera) In a parallel process being brokered by Russia, Taliban representatives and Afghan politicians opposed to President Ashraf Ghani met in Moscow last month. The Taliban refuse to recognize Ghani's government, calling it a "puppet" of the US. (Al Jazeera) But advocates for Afghan women view both these sets of talks with increasing skepticism, voicing their concern that hard-won rights could be bargained away.
Bahrain’s highest court on Jan. 28 upheld a life sentence for Shi'ite cleric and opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, for spying on behalf of neighboring Qatar. According to Amnesty International, the case is based on conversations that Salman had in 2011 with the then-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani. Salman was initially acquitted, but he was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2018 by the court of appeals. This term has now been affirmed by the Cassation Court. Amnesty International called the verdict a "bitter blow to freedom of expression." The organization's Middle East director Samah Hadid said it "exposes the country's justice system as a complete farce. The decision to uphold Sheikh Ali Salman's conviction and life prison sentence following an unfair trial highlights the authorities' determination to silence critical voices."
Taliban leaders confirmed that long-planned direct talks with the US took place in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 12. The Taliban said in a statement (PDF) that their delegation met with US special adviser for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. The statement said the two sides discussed the prospects for an end to the presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and the return of "true peace" to the country. (Khaama Press, Long War Journal, Oct. 13) These overtures come as the US is stepping up operations against ISIS in Afghanistan. In an Aug. 25 air-strike in Nangarhar province, the US claimed to have killed Abu Sayed Orakzai, top ISIS commander in Afghanistan. (CNN, Sept. 3) Earlier in August, more than 200 ISIS fighters and their two top commanders surrendered to Afghan government forces in Jowzjan province to avoid capture by Taliban insurgents, after a two-day battle that was a decisive victory for the Taliban. (NYT, Aug. 1)
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Saudi Arabia to immediately account for the whereabouts of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Multiple news outlets reported Oct. 6 that Turkish authorities, who have been investigating his disappearance, believe that Khashoggi is dead and was killed inside the consulate. "CPJ is alarmed by media reports that Jamal Khashoggi may have been killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul," said CPJ Deputy executive director Robert Mahoney. "The Saudi authorities must immediately give a full and credible accounting of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission. The country has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad."