March 30, 2015 / 2:38 PM / in 2 years

Council fears US troop decision to hurt faltering Afghan peace process

KABUL (Reuters) - The official body overseeing the Afghan peace process and other influential players in the region have criticized President Ashraf Ghani for pushing for U.S. troops to stay longer, saying it could hurt the chances of ending the Taliban insurgency.

Talks between the government and Taliban have yet to begin, although militant leaders have signaled that they are ready to negotiate through Pakistani mediation. The conflict costs thousands of lives each year.

Progress towards highly sensitive talks appears to have stalled, in part over divisions within the Taliban.

The U.S. announcement during Ghani's recent visit to Washington to slow the pace at which it would wind down a force of 9,800 soldiers, and allow them to stay through the end of 2015, could further complicate the process.

Under the previous plan, U.S. forces were to have been cut to about half their current levels by year-end, and the change has angered the Taliban, which has stated that foreign troops against which it has fought must not be allowed to stay.

"This will certainly complicate the peace effort, because the Taliban have long wanted foreign troops and U.S. forces in particular to leave Afghanistan," High Peace Council spokesman Shahzada Shahid told Reuters.

The High Peace Council was appointed by Ghani's predecessor to negotiate peace with the Taliban and has some 70 members.

Some senior regional diplomats and Afghan power brokers say the U.S. decision makes little difference on the battlefield, but could further erode already fragile trust between the Taliban and the government.

They fear that by seeking additional U.S. military support, Ghani is sending the wrong message to the Taliban, which was ousted in an American-led operation in 2001 and is fighting to return to power and impose a strict interpretation of sharia.

FIGHTING SEASON

One of the more outspoken parliamentarians in Kabul, Abdul Qader Zazai, said the decision would have a "negative impact" on the peace process, while the Taliban's official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, condemned the U.S. move.

"The Afghans will never accept foreign occupation and have the patience and determination for a long struggle," said Mujahid, who, given the fractious nature of the movement, does not necessarily reflect the views of the entire leadership.

President Barack Obama still intends to withdraw U.S. troops by 2017, but by delaying the reduction this year, he hopes to bolster under-resourced Afghan forces during the traditional fighting season which begins in spring.

Although NATO's U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, which numbered 130,000 at its peak, has formally ended combat duties, thousands of soldiers remain to train local forces and provide support including gathering intelligence.

Around 1,800 soldiers are also engaged in fighting Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan.

Afghan commanders welcomed Obama's decision, although U.S. air support has been gradually wound down and is only used in emergencies, hampering their ability to battle the Taliban.

Little has been said publicly about what the Taliban may demand before coming to the negotiating table, but even if talks did begin, experts said the process could take years.

As well as how to divide power and objections about foreign troops in Afghanistan, other potential stumbling blocks include possible demands that the constitution be changed and how Taliban fighters are reintegrated into society.

"Power sharing is not the most controversial issue compared with Taliban demands that the constitution be extensively rewritten," said Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi, who has studied the movement for a decade.

"The issue of reintegrating the Taliban's full-time armed force; nobody talks about it, but how this problem is approached will determine the success of the (Taliban's) leadership in dragging its fighters towards a political settlement."

Additional reporting by Rafiq Sherzad and Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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