PRESIDENT Ashraf Ghani has so far stalled a planned prisoner exchange of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners on flimsy grounds resulting into an indefinite delay of peace talks in Oslo between Kabul government and Taliban leaders.Afghan and Taliban officials made their first direct contact on 22 March, using Skype videoconferencing to discuss procedures for prisoners’ release. But they made little apparent progress, other than to agree that the risk of Corona Virus infection made transfers more urgent. The Afghan political and civil society leaders formed a negotiating team for talks with Taliban on 26 March. Afghanistan’s government announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban. The team is headed by Masoom Stanekzai, and includes politicians, former officials and representatives of civil society. Five members are women. “This consensus is a meaningful step that moves the parties significantly closer to intra-Afghan negotiations,” The US special envoy forAfghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said. However, Taliban have declined to begin talks; their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the team was not constituted taking into account all parties. Earlier the US had threatened to pull out the its troops from Afghanistan and slash $2 billion out of aid to Afghanistan as peace talks teetered, this was mainly due to a bitter feud between Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah. It was indeed a strong message that US patience is wearing thin. Facing collapse of Afghan peace talks even before their start, the TrumpAdministration used this threat to entice the two to put aside their differences and open negotiations with the Taliban. In an effort to rescue the peace agreement, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo held meetings withAfghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on March 23. Rebuking the Afghan officials, Pompeo publicly warned that US aid to the central government could be slashed after his emergency visit to Kabul. “Because this leadership failure poses a direct threat to US national interests, effective immediately, the US government will initiate a review of the scope of our cooperation withAfghanistan,” Pompeo said. Kabul governmentis heavily dependent oninternational assistance. “The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved and resolved soon, that could affect the peace process,” a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with Pompeo. “And our agreement with the [Taliban] could be put at risk.” Even as he threatened to cut critical aid to Kabul, Pompeo insisted that the US “is not abandoning our partnership with Afghanistan.” The threat was the sharpest sign yet that the Trump Administration is distancing itself from itsAfghan ally and moving closer to the Taliban. The US and Taliban forces have largely halted attacks on each other, a key commitment in an agreement. Likewise, Taliban have not conducted large scale suicide bombings in urban centres. In reciprocation, the Pentagon has started withdrawing its 12,000 troops down to 8,600 by mid-summer. Apparently there is no looking back as far as 8600 benchmark is concerned. Meanwhile, at least four service members of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan have tested positive for the Corona Virus. And another 38 personnel exhibiting flu-like symptoms are in isolation and receiving medical care. There is fear of a rise in number of Covid-19 cases. Hence,thereis urgencytotake boys home. However, Taliban have stepped up attacks onAfghan troops, causing hundreds of casualties at government checkpoints and remote bases around the country. The Taliban did not commit to halting attacks on Afghan troops, but it agreed to work toward a cease-fire if talks with Kabul begin. The document includes secret provisions concerning the levels and types of attacks that would prompt US reprisals. Ambiguous language in the document leaves the US essential space to decide whether and when to respond. On 24 March, General Austin Scott Miller, the top US Commander inAfghanistan, said that the US has told Taliban leaders that the group’s attacks are threatening the peace process, and that the US reserved the right to strike back. “I do want to talk about violence. We all know that it’s too high,” Miller said in televised remarks during a meeting in Kabul with Afghan Commanders. “We’ve told the Taliban that it’s too high as well, and we tell them that on a daily basis.” At least 27 Afghan soldiers were killed in a single attack last week when Taliban fighters stormed a military post in the southern province of Zabul. It had been one of the biggest attacks since the peace agreement was signed on February 29. The only known US response so far was a March 4 airstrike against Taliban fighters assaulting anAfghan government checkpoint. Paul D. Miller, a National Security Council official responsible for Afghanistan under Presidents George W Bush and Obama, likened the situation to the point in the VietnamWar when the NixonAdministration negotiated a deal with Hanoi and forced the US ally in Saigon to accept it. Two years later, Hanoi’s forces captured Saigon. “The fragmentation of Afghan state becomes a real possibility, as does civil war, a military coup, or a Taliban victory,” Miller said in an interview. Notwithstanding Pompeo’s harsh statement, he retained adequate room open for reviewing its strategy: “Should Afghan leaders choose to form an inclusive government that can provide security and participate in the peace process, the United States is prepared to support these efforts”. Pakistan has invested a lot of political capital in Afghan peace agreement, it hopes that in due course the process would overcome teething problems, pick up traction and herald an era of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. —Thewriteris a freelance columnistbased in Islamabad.