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Turkey likely to host Afghan peace moot

ANKARA, Turkey: The administration of US President Joe Biden will ask Turkey to host a senior-level meeting between Taliban and Afghan officials in coming weeks to finalise a peace agreement.

The local Afghan media, quoting from an official letter it published on Sunday said the letter was sent by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Blinken suggested convoking an UN-facilitated conference with foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the United States “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.”

“Turkey has been suggested as a venue for the senior-level meeting that involves key Afghan sides. Awaiting final agreement, this would be a historic occasion for Turkey to host and be a facilitator of the Afghan peace process,” Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada and currently, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council said.

“Although consultations are ongoing at this stage, the participants and the agenda would need to be worked out ahead of time,” he said. “As a historic friend of Afghanistan, Turkey is a trusted partner and it will be important to maintain an even-handed approach to get the best results.”

Last month, Blinken discussed the review of US strategy in Afghanistan with Ghani and repeated his support for the peace process that includes “a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

Biden’s administration is reviewing its strategy to decide about the troop withdrawal to be completed by May 1.

Washington is also keeping track of the Taliban’s fulfilment of their commitments under a February 2020 accord to reduce violence and stop Al-Qaeda from raising funds or recruiting in Afghanistan.

Samad thinks that as an Islamic nation with historic ties to Afghanistan, Turkey is seen by all Afghan factions and international partners as an honest broker and a country that can play a constructive role in the peace process.

He said donor nations might decide not only to endorse the conference outcome but also to provide security assurances and contribute to Afghan stability and development programs during a transitional period leading to a peace agreement and a ceasefire.

For Magdalena Kirchner, director of Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Kabul office, as a Muslim country and NATO member, Turkey was always referred to by many as a “natural candidate” for mediation, and the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visited Ankara several times in November and December.

“Turkey is a significant donor and has troops stationed in Afghanistan, but it also has stable relations with significant power brokers inside and outside the government, such as ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rasheed Dostum or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” she said.

“Turkey maintains stable relations with Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia and could hence facilitate an intra-regional effort. It also has good relations with Qatar and softened its stance on the Taliban over the past years,” Kirchner said.

However, Kirchner said it was not clear yet how much agency the US is going to delegate to the Turkish government.

“In general, the international community should support the meeting and consultations, but also make clear that ongoing assistance and aid to Afghanistan will be tied to a certain political settlement and verifiable commitments to human rights standards by allowing civil society representatives to attend meetings,” she said.

The recent increase of bomb attacks in Kabul against Afghan officials and high-profile targets has triggered fear, with many experts claiming that the Taliban has been working to obstruct the progress of intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar, which has been paused for a while.

Haldun Yalcinkaya, a professor at Ankara’s TOBB ETU University who has field expertise in Afghanistan in 2005, said the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance document that was released on March 3 by the White House showed the change in the US Afghan policy.

In the document, the US pledged to “work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan while ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States.”

“This letter should be read as a US offer made to Ankara to turn the bilateral relations into a transactional one and to use Turkey as an interface between Afghan society and the international community in the global fight against radical extremism,” Yalcinkaya said.

“Now the ball is on the Turkish side to deliver on this high expectation because so far Qatar was hosting this round of talks and Turkey should use this opportunity.”

In late December 2020, Turkey extended troop deployment in Afghanistan for another 18 months as part of NATO’s support mission.