World

United States and Taliban move towards peace deal. Papua New Guinea inquiry into Horizon Oil payment. Xi Jinping defends his response to COVID-19 outbreak. Assad regime launches an assault on Idlib. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US, Taliban look to Afghan peace deal

Former Taliban militants surrender their weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Jalālābād, Afghanistan, this month.
Credit: EPA / GHULAMULLAH HABIBI

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Afghanistan: The United States and the Taliban are due to sign a long-awaited deal, possibly as soon as next weekend, that will lead to talks to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The deal is limited in scope, which may improve its prospects of success.

Donald Trump has made several attempts to reach a deal with the Taliban, including a controversial plan last year to host its leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat, days before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In the end, Trump cancelled the summit after a suicide bombing in Afghanistan killed a US soldier.

But the latest deal, which was negotiated secretly in Qatar, appears more restrained than previous efforts. The first step will be a seven-day “reduction in violence”, including a halt by the Taliban to suicide and rocket attacks. A deal will then be signed, possibly in Qatar. This would be followed by the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners.

Within 10 to 15 days of the signing, the Taliban would take part in talks involving Afghan government officials. This marks an apparent breakthrough, though the Taliban, which views the government as illegitimate, has indicated it will regard the officials as ordinary citizens.

The deal provides for the US to reduce troop numbers from about 12,000 to 8600 within 135 days. In return, the Taliban would commit to keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

Still, there are reasons to be cautious. The deal will be a prelude to the more difficult task of reaching a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And the violence in Afghanistan has been intensifying. From October to December, the Taliban carried out 8204 attacks – the most on record.

Since the war began in late 2001, tens of thousands of Afghans have died. About 3500 US and allied troops have been killed, including more than 40 Australians. The US has spent more than $US900 billion on the war.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, this week ordered an investigation into allegations that an Australian firm, Horizon Oil, made a corrupt payment of $US10.3 million to allow it to develop lucrative gas fields.

Horizon allegedly paid the money in 2011 to a shell company controlled by a figure linked to William Duma, who was then the petroleum minister. At the time, Duma and Horizon were locked in a legal dispute about the project. According to documents leaked to The Australian Financial Review, Horizon had written to Duma for “any suggestion” about how the “tension might be defused”.

On Tuesday, Marape, who took office last year after promising to combat corruption, told parliament he had asked the Australian government to assist with investigations into the alleged bribery. “If there is corruption involved ... then find the evidence and due action will take its course,” he said.

Horizon has ordered an investigation and suspended its chief executive, Michael Sheridan. The Australian Federal Police is also investigating. Horizon’s share price has dropped by about 30 per cent since the allegations were reported. Duma, now the commerce minister, has claimed he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.

On Tuesday, PNG’s MPs voted unanimously to introduce a law to protect corruption whistleblowers. The law was first introduced to parliament 20 years ago.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: Last weekend, Qiushi Journal, a political theory magazine produced by the Chinese Communist Party, published a speech made by Xi Jinping to the party’s most powerful body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. In the speech Xi called for action to address the coronavirus on January 7, about two weeks earlier than was previously known.

Presumably Xi wanted to show that he, unlike officials in the city of Wuhan, was quick to address the outbreak. But the release of an internal speech so soon after its delivery is unusual and appeared to confirm Xi is coming under intense political pressure as the crisis worsens.

Despite initial praise for its response to COVID-19, including from the World Health Organization, Beijing has faced growing scrutiny – inside and outside China. Xi’s speech, for instance, occurred before Chinese scientists released information about the virus to their international colleagues, and about two weeks before a lockdown was imposed on Wuhan. Last weekend, Xu Zhiyong, a prominent activist who had criticised Xi’s response, was detained. The purge of critics and local officials has added to concerns about the reliability of officially released data.

The outbreak continues to spread, though China’s mass quarantine appears to be helping to contain it, with about 150 million people confined to their homes.

Outside China, the largest cluster of cases has occurred on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship carrying 3700 passengers and crew that is quarantined in Japan. As of Wednesday, 621 people on the ship had been infected, leading to questions about the initial decision to keep people aboard. Of 220 Australians originally on the ship, more than 40 have come down with the virus. Most of the remaining Australians were evacuated on Thursday to a former workers’ site near Darwin. They will be held there in further quarantine for two weeks.

SPOTLIGHT: Idlib

Syria: The Assad regime has launched an assault on Idlib, the last significant rebel-held area in Syria, with devastating results.

An estimated 900,000 people have been displaced since the assault began in December. Most have fled to the border with Turkey, but the border is closed and the camps there are full.

On Monday, a United Nations relief co-ordinator, Mark Lowcock, described the scenes near the border as “horrifying”.

“Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm,” he said. “Babies and small children are dying because of the cold.”

About half of Idlib’s three million residents had fled there as other rebel-held parts of Syria fell.

Assad’s forces are backed by Russia and Iran. The opposition forces are largely backed by Turkey.

In 2018, Russia and Turkey agreed to create a de-escalation zone in the province but the ceasefire was regularly violated. Now, the deal has collapsed. Shelling by Assad’s troops has killed 13 Turkish soldiers this month. This has prompted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to announce plans to attack the regime’s forces before the end of February.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded on Monday, making a rare televised address in which he promised to continue with Idlib’s “liberation”.

“We rubbed their noses in the dirt as a prelude for complete victory,” he said.

Turkey has moved additional troops into Idlib but may want to avoid a full-scale confrontation with the Russian-backed forces. Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have, unusually, developed warm ties in recent years, partly as their relations with Washington and Europe deteriorated. A serious conflict in Idlib could end this new-found kinship.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "US, Taliban look to Afghan peace deal".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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