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What’s next for the United States in Afghanistan? | USA

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Zalmay Khalilzad is likely not a happy man right now.

Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, had been on an urgent mission: Launch a peace process with the Taliban, and launch it soon. With US President Donald Trump eager to wind down the war, Washington has been eager to get a deal to give the president cover for a withdrawal.

Khalilzad had made some progress. He facilitated several high-level meetings between senior US officials and Taliban representatives. The most encouraging exchange occurred in the UAE earlier this month.

“They told me we cannot defeat you,” Khalilzad said in an interview with the Afghan TV station Tolo News shortly after the UAE talks, referring to the Taliban. The insurgents told him that “we should first sit with you, which means the US, then with Afghans, and resolve the issues through political means.” Given that the Taliban representation included the head of its political office and chief of staff to supreme leader Mullah Akhundzada, such a conciliatory message is nothing to sneeze at.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, Khalilzad’s boss pulled the rug out from under him. Trump abruptly decided to withdraw nearly half of the 14,000-strong US troops in Afghanistan.

This move makes Khalilzad’s job much more difficult, as Washington seems to have lost ample leverage in future talks.

Trump squandered a precious opportunity

The US president has given the Taliban what they’ve long demanded – a commitment to withdraw troops – and they didn’t need to give up anything in return, much less conclude a deal. For the Taliban, the withdrawal decision is manna from heaven. For US negotiators, it’s a punch to the gut.

Getting the Taliban to agree to formal talks was a hard-enough sell before Trump’s decision. The insurgents, who have pushed back hard against beleaguered Afghan forces and hold more territory than at any time since the 2001 US-led invasion, had little reason to stop fighting.

The Taliban has previously said it may be open to formal talks with the Afghan government to end the war once Washington commits to troop withdrawals. So why not view Trump’s decision as an opening to launch a peace process?

Unfortunately, so long as Afghanistan‘s current government remains in power, that’s likely not in the cards. Even with a troop drawdown plan, the Taliban won’t be itching to talk to the current Afghan government.

Ever since US forces expelled the Taliban from power in 2001, the group has denounced Afghan governments as illegitimate and puppets of Washington. The Taliban would argue that such crude characterisations apply particularly well to the present administration – a national unity government that is the product of a US-led negotiation, not an election.

After Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election ended inconclusively, US Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to Kabul, where he hammered out a power-sharing deal between the two top vote-getters, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. These two men lead the current government.

So when Taliban statements, such as the one released in November, refer to the Afghan government as “installed by the Americans and imposed on the Muslim Afghan nation,” they’re not off the mark.

Ultimately, Trump’s unilateral drawdown decision may have squandered Washington’s best chance to date to launch peace talks. The Taliban is poised to capitalise on the new battlefield advantage generated by a drawdown unaccompanied by a peace deal, and to step up its fight against a government to which it has no interest in talking.

What are Washington’s options now?

Ideally, Trump would walk back his drawdown decision and give Khalilzad’s diplomatic efforts more time. It’s easier to justify a withdrawal if you can say that at least you tried to make peace first.

Realistically, Trump is unlikely to change course; he’s never been comfortable remaining in Afghanistan. Additionally, the White House – especially with the impending departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis – has few remaining senior officials who support staying the course and are in a position to convince Trump to change his mind, or even to slow down the pace of the drawdown. Trump could well announce a full withdrawal in the coming months.

So what can Washington do to pick up the pieces of a shattered opportunity?

The first step is damage control. Top US officials should assure Kabul that despite imminent troop reductions, they aren’t abandoning Afghanistan. Washington should emphasise that it will continue to provide critical funding to Afghan security forces and to support efforts to expand the Afghan Special Forces, the crown jewel of Afghanistan’s army which is badly suffering from overexertion.

Such measures can ease Afghan concerns about US abandonment and limit the Taliban’s potential battlefield gains following US troop departures.

Second, if and when contacts with the Taliban resume, Washington should focus on getting the Taliban to formally renounce ties with al-Qaeda. Analysts have long feared that Afghanistan will revert to an international terrorism sanctuary in the event of a US withdrawal, and this fear may be one reason why a reluctant Trump agreed to keep troops in the country when he announced his Afghanistan strategy last year.

The same fear also drives the US negotiating strategy. In his Tolo News interview, Khalilzad said, “If the menace of terrorism is tackled, the United States is not looking for a permanent military presence in Afghanistan.” The Taliban is actively fighting a local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), but it retains ties to al-Qaeda.

Here is where Pakistan can be helpful. Washington should press Islamabad, which enjoys extensive influence over the insurgents, to take up the al-Qaeda issue with the Taliban, and to enlist key regional actors Russia, Iran, and China in this campaign, as well. These four countries don’t get along with Washington, but they also have no interest in Afghanistan reverting to an al-Qaeda sanctuary.

There may be an opening. Tricia Bacon, a scholar who studies alliances between terror groups, has written that the Taliban is not as dependent on the operational and financial support it used to receive from al-Qaeda, while al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri enjoys less standing within the Taliban than did his predecessor, Osama bin Laden.

Third, Washington should extend its full backing to Afghan presidential elections scheduled for next year. Given security, technological, and logistical challenges, the poll will likely be flawed, but the chances of the Taliban talking to Kabul – and by extension, launching formal talks – are higher if Afghanistan’s leadership is the product of an election, warts and all, rather than an external US-led meditation.

In recent days, Afghan election officials have indicated the poll will be postponed by several months to fix technical glitches. In the best-case scenario, the delay would not only fix problems in the election process and make it more credible, but it would also allow for more time to build a blueprint for peace talks with the Taliban to begin once the new government takes office.

Amid a suddenly receding US role and presence in Afghanistan, Kabul’s participation in a potential peace process has never been more critical. Khalilzad can limit the damage of his boss’s rash decision by helping create the right conditions for an eventual launch of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process that Afghanistan and its long-suffering citizenry richly deserve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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