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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 transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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