'They hold our nation hostage and pay lip service to peace': Afghans respond to the collapse of US-Taliban talks

Ben Farmer
Troops from NATO Resolute Support remove a blown-up vehicle in Kabul last week - AP

Afghans awoke on Sunday to find that months of negotiations that had electrified the country had been ended with a tweet.

Over the course of three messages, the United States president halted talks between America and the Taliban after more than a year of meetings in the Gulf.

Those talks, which had excluded the Afghan government, had been pored over and analysed for months by those at their mercy, but without a say.

“The game is not played by Afghans,” said Ahmad Eqbal, 25-year-old medical graduate working in a Kabul private hospital.

“The peace negotiation was symbolic, in which Afghan people were not involved. And now they have stopped talking.”

“I feel that they play with our fates, and I feel being humiliated. But there is nothing we can do. We just watch.”

The body of Sgt Elis Barreto Ortiz is repatriated to the US after he was killed in Kabul on September 5 Credit:  Cliff Owen/AP

The negotiations in opulent Doha hotels had lent the Taliban credibility and legitimacy, when they were no more than a criminal group, the 25-year-old said.

Ejas Ahmad Malikzada, a social activist based in Kabul, said the negotiations had been badly flawed and undermined the Afghan government, which has been cut out of talks. “[The Taliban] perceived that they were winning the war and the peace talks.”

“It was the worst ever peace negotiation.”

“I have mixed feelings. I am worried about the escalation of violence.”

But he said he was also optimistic that presidential elections scheduled for the end of this month would now proceed, lending legitimacy to the Afghan government and strengthening its hand against the insurgents.

As bombs tore through Kabul last week, it seemed difficult for many residents to believe that negotiations between American and Taliban envoys were making good progress.

Even as Donald Trump's lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, was last Monday telling an Afghan television channel an agreement had been finalised in principle, a truck bomb shook the capital's living rooms.

That blast outside a compound housing foreign workers killed up to 30. Three days later at least 10 died when a van full of explosives detonated at a checkpoint close to Nato headquarters.

Taliban fighters assaulted three provincial capitals last week and according to the New York Times, which keeps a tally of the conflict's dead, at least 179 pro-government forces and 110 civilians died over seven days.

Afghan forces and civilians were being killed to strengthen the Taliban's negotiating hand said Hussain Sharifi, aged 25. “The peace process is very complicated, but Trump’s tweet raised hope for Afghans. We were the victims. It gave us hope that we enter direct talks with the Taliban with more leverage.”

“We are in the worst situation. We face a dark future and everything changes so dramatically.” “They use as a political tool. When they talk, they target us.”

“Like me, many people are worried about what happens next.”

A market in Kabul's old city; many residents are desperate for an end to the violence Credit:  Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

For Pashtana Barakzai, a 20-year-old politics student at the prestigious American University of Afghanistan, the talks had appeared to reward Taliban violence.

“It's like they are holding a country hostage by gun and then they are negotiating peace,” she said. “It's basically not peace, it's the share of power that they want.”

In the Afghan capital, before Mr Trump's announcement, the secrecy around talks, the fact Afghans were not present to discuss their own future, and the Taliban refusal to call a truce had fed a mixture of anxiety, anger and frustrated craving for peace.

Many Kabul residents the Telegraph spoke to last week were desperate to end the violence which United Nations estimates say killed or wounded more than 11,000 civilians in 2018.

They were not opposed to negotiations with the Taliban, but doubted whether the Taliban were talking in good faith. After Mr Trump's halting of talks, America's predicament remains grim however.

Diplomats in Kabul said there was no prospect of a military solution to America's longest conflict. The Taliban's influence extends more widely in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001 and year-by-year the Afghan government gets weaker.

Only a little over half the country's administrative districts are “controlled or influenced” by the Kabul government according to US estimates, with the rest either under the sway of the Taliban, or a contested no man's land. Under this scenario, America and Kabul's negotiating position gets weaker as time goes on.

At some point the talks will have to be held again, said Graeme Smith, a consultant at International Crisis Group. “When do we get back to the negotiating table? Both sides are considering their options. It’s when, not if.”