PBS NewsHour: The Brutal Push For Peace In Afghanistan After Almost 20 Years Of War

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Via PBS NewsHour -- The highest level of talks yet between the U.S. and the Taliban concluded Tuesday in Qatar. With videographer Sebastian Rich's exclusive footage of American and Afghan operations in southern Afghanistan, Nick Schifrin reports on how both sides are trying to use battlefield gains to force peacemaking concessions, and gets insight from Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Judy Woodruff: The latest round of talks between the United States and the Taliban concluded yesterday in Qatar. It is the highest-level engagement ever between the adversaries, now nearing the end of a second decade of fighting in Afghanistan.



In a moment, we will hear the Afghan government's perspective on the talks.

But, first, videographer Sebastian Rich recently sent us exclusive video of American and Afghan operations in Southern Afghanistan.

And Nick Schifrin reports on how both sides are trying to use battlefield gains to force peacemaking concessions.

Nick Schifrin: In the 19th year of the Afghan war, Taliban snipers don't miss by very much.

Man: One of the rounds, like, hit one, two. And it just went through. I was just sitting right here, and they flew right by my head.

Nick Schifrin: But when these U.S. Marine advisers come under fire in Helmand, the response is organized, mapped out on an iPad, and aimed on this old Russian tank by Afghan soldiers.

The Taliban sniper was hit, and, afterward, the Afghan commander provided details to the U.S. Marine captain.

These days, the Afghan army does the majority of the fighting and dying. Since 2015, the Afghan government says 28,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died. In the same time, the U.S. says 62 American service members have died.

The U.S. trains Afghan forces, provides them logistics and intelligence, and supports them with weapons they don't have, like long-range artillery.

As weapons are fired outside, inside the nearby joint operations command, U.S. Marines track possible fighters with drones, or UAVs.

Man: This is the guy who had the cross-body weapon.

Nick Schifrin: This rare footage of aerial surveillance, where when nearly 40 Marines and intelligence officers work with drone, helicopter and aircraft pilots, was screened and cleared by the U.S. Marine unit.

Man: This guy came out of the L-shaped building with a long rifle.

Nick Schifrin: They try and minimize civilian casualties. And they look at video we couldn't film on the equivalent of a DVR.

Man: Oh, you can see it. Yes, you can see the barrel actually poking out on his left side.

Nick Schifrin: And stay in communication with a drone pilot.

Man: He has now gone internal to our L-shaped building.

Nick Schifrin: On this day, for six hours, they track a man the Marines say was carrying a weapon out of a mosque and likely preparing another attack, walking into this building. And after the military says it checked its intelligence and acquired legal authorization, the drone films as jets strike.

After, the camera zooms in on men trying to escape. A few seconds later, gunfire from an aircraft kills them too.

Brig Gen. Dale Alford: We're looking through a camera off of a UAV, and it's pretty up and close personal when you see those missiles hit human beings.

Nick Schifrin: This is Brigadier General Dale Alford's third deployment to Afghanistan. He has seen this war transform from a light U.S. footprint, to a surge of U.S. forces, to this deployment, where his unit has suffered zero casualties.

Brig Gen. Dale Alford: Marines aren't dying, and this — and that is the natural evolution of this war. But there's still a lot of Afghan soldiers and policeman that are dying on a daily basis, and my job is to try to make less of that, and the way we do that is, we take out the bad guys.

Nick Schifrin: Over the last year, the Taliban have increased the number of high-profile attacks. A military inspector general says the Taliban control or contest nearly half the country, hoping to obtain leverage in peace talks.

Brig Gen. Dale Alford: Our mission is to help the Afghan army and police force put military pressure on the Taliban to bring them to the table, to come to some kind of peace agreement. Every war must end.

Nick Schifrin: This war's end is being negotiated by Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, coordinating closely with the military.

Yesterday, he concluded the longest-ever negotiation round with the Taliban, including the group's recently released deputy leader. Senior U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" the two sides began to draft agreements on the Taliban's preventing Afghanistan from being used by international terrorists.

But the Taliban haven't yet agreed to renounce al-Qaida. And the talks produced a — quote — "sense of convergence" on U.S. troop withdrawal, but the U.S. has not yet committed to a timeline.

Khalilzad is under pressure to achieve major progress by this summer's planned election.

He spoke in Washington in early February:

Zalmay Khalilzad: It will be better for Afghanistan if we could get a peace agreement before the election, which is scheduled in July.

Nick Schifrin: But the two sides have not agreed on a Taliban cease-fire or the Taliban's meeting directly with the Afghan government, which Khalilzad called the most important, and difficult stage.

Zalmay Khalilzad: We have offered to do what we can to be helpful, if our help is needed. But it's for the Afghans to decide. It's for the Afghans to have the conversations. It's for the Afghans to negotiate with each other. It is for the Afghans to accept each other.

Nick Schifrin: But, so far, the Taliban refuse to accept even talking directly with the Afghan government, and the Afghan government is concerned about Khalilzad's pace.

On Monday, before the latest round of talks ended, I spoke with Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to President Ashraf Ghani.

What level of input has President Ghani or your government in general had in Ambassador Khalilzad's talks with the Taliban?

Nader Nadery: Our level of input would — we would like to see increased and expanded the sequence of the different processes, and also we want to see that the different elements, which is the withdrawal of the troops, reduction of the troops, not using Afghanistan or Taliban, cutting their ties with the terrorist groups, then the negotiation with Afghan government and cease-fire.

All of these are interlinked and the Afghan government wants to see, being at the center of the table, backed and helped and facilitated by the United States. And I think Ambassador Khalilzad is walking toward that direction.

Nick Schifrin: Right now, you're not at the center of the table. You're not even at the table.

These talks are between the United States, as you said, and the Taliban. And you said you would like our input expanded.

I talk to a lot of people in Kabul who are frustrated with Ambassador Khalilzad. Is the government receiving enough information about what he is talking to the Taliban about?

Nader Nadery: I wouldn't point to the person.

The process is designed as such where the government at this stage is not at the center of the table. And that's what we are working. Ambassador Khalilzad is continually brief the president. We want to see that, not only briefing, but also much more of a contribution and discussion on the substance of the process.

The United States shall and I think it has the moral authority and the political ability to press the Taliban to preserve the centrality of Afghan constitution or the space that's being created.

Nick Schifrin: And do you believe that the U.S. is pressing the Taliban to preserve the constitution of the Taliban?

Nader Nadery: At this stage, the United States, it has interests and it has values, but it will leave it to Afghan people to define what they want.

And we, as Afghan people, we want to keep the rules of the game in political power preserved, and that is through the constitution and through preservation and strengthening to have the democratic process we have.

If we don't preserve that, civil war will return back. Now, we say we will advocate, we will fight for those values, including women's participation and equal right in the public administration and in society.

Nick Schifrin: President Trump has explained that he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. Ambassador Khalilzad has talked about needing to have progress, major progress by the summer.

Are you worried that U.S., as you put it, will not stand with you when it comes to defending the constitution, in order to make a deal quickly?

Nader Nadery: That's a major fear. And there is a level of anxiety, when we see that there is a rush.

We do understand and we feel the sense of urgency. We have the sense of urgency, as the people of Afghanistan. We want this war to end. We want the guns to be silent. But silencing the guns shall not be in a way that is temporary silence. We want it to be carefully done in a design of an agreement that will result in a proud moment both for the United States and for Afghans that, when the United States looks back to see 17 years of blood and treasure, this is the peace that we have brought in that country and in that region.

We're indebted, as a nation, to the sacrifices the U.S. people have given to us.

Nick Schifrin: You used the word anxiety when it comes to Ambassador Khalilzad's talks. Has that anxiety increased since these talks began?

Nader Nadery: There's no anxiety about the notion of the talk itself and Zalmay Khalilzad's discussion and engagement.

We want to see this war end, the true peace discussion. But the anxiety is on the pace of it and the speed of it that distracts all of us from focusing on the substance and content of the peace agreement, because a speeded process, a rushed process will change the rules of the game, will reset everything, and, therefore, will be an invitation for civil war. That's where people are worried.

Nick Schifrin: Is the Afghan government concerned that the U.S. will ask President Ghani to essentially step down, so that the U.S. can create an interim government to allow the Taliban in as a part of the peace deal?

Nader Nadery: Ordinary Afghans across the country want to see their country political system through a model of election continue.

And people need to preserve and respect that wish. And that's why the Afghan government is insisting on keeping the election and focus on an election continued.

Nick Schifrin: Nader Nadery, senior adviser to President Ashraf Ghani and chairman of the equivalent of Afghan's civil service, thank you very much.

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