On February 28, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made an extraordinary peace overture to the Taliban.
The offer is striking in its generosity. If the Taliban accepts the Afghan government and comes to the negotiating table, Ghani held out the possibility of recognizing the group as a political party and letting it open an office in Kabul.
Kabul’s previous attempts at peace have failed. This one probably will too. But making the offer was still the right thing to do.
Ghani is betting on the assumption that with Washington implementing a new strategy that entails intensifying its fight against the Taliban, the group will feel the pressure and be amenable to negotiating an end to the war.
And yet, even if the Taliban is feeling the pressure, it’s not a spent force. It still controls many areas of the country, including some districts to the north and west, far from its traditional strongholds in the south and east. It’s still waging furious offensives against beleaguered Afghan forces. And it’s still staging attacks in highly secured urban spaces.
The Taliban simply doesn’t have an incentive to step off the battlefield. Ending its fight would amount to quitting while it’s ahead.
Additionally, while Ghani wants the Taliban to talk to his government, the Taliban insists it will only talk to the Americans. But the Americans aren’t interested. Washington, like Kabul, wants the Taliban to talk to the government that it seeks to overthrow.
Furthermore, the Taliban insists that foreign forces must withdraw before it agrees to talks. And yet, the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy is all about stepping up the fight. For Washington and Kabul, the Taliban’s precondition for talks is a non-starter.
What would it take for the Taliban to be receptive to peace overtures from Kabul? If it really starts feeling the pressure, and suffers major losses in lives and territory, then maybe it would relent. The problem is that efforts to weaken the Taliban have failed repeatedly, including when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were in place in 2010 and 2011. If 100,000 American troops couldn’t push the Taliban to the negotiating table, it’s unlikely that the less than 15,000 on the ground now will do so.
Additionally, Taliban leaders have recently suggested they’d be amenable to talks if Kabul offered them a sufficiently attractive package – specifically, a 50/50 power-sharing arrangement. But as desperate as Kabul may be for peace, it’s unlikely to agree to cede so much power to an entity that has terrorized the nation for so long.
There’s also an institutional obstacle: The Taliban is an ideologically fractured organization. Its moderate factions may support talks. However, hardline Taliban factions will likely reject them no matter how generous the terms. The Taliban is waging an insurgency against a government it believes to be illegitimate. Laying down arms and recognizing that government would represent a repudiation of its raison d’etre.
Still, Ghani was right to offer peace to the Taliban, and he deserves praise for making such a politically risky move. He extended an olive branch just weeks after the Taliban placed explosives in an ambulance and blew it up in central Kabul, killing more than 100. Many Afghans may be in no mood to negotiate with such monsters. But then again, Afghans are also desperate for peace. Ghani, sensing an opportunity, decided to strike.
So why make a peace offer likely to fall on deaf ears? Because the war can’t be won militarily. Reconciliation may be a remote prospect, but it’s the only viable alternative.
Kabul’s peace offer is also advantageous for America. If the Taliban rejects it, Washington can better justify what may now seem unfathomable: an exit strategy.
Last August, President Trump announced that his Afghanistan strategy would emphasize a conditions-based approach, with no artificial timelines. Many observers interpreted this to mean that the White House was agreeing to an open-ended military commitment.
Imagine if, down the road, the administration concludes that a stepped-up military campaign still isn’t turning the tide of the war and the Taliban still isn’t interested in talks, even when offered generous concessions. These conditions could compel Trump, who has admitted that “my original instinct was to pull out,” to head for the exits.
The risks of withdrawal are immense. Rapid destabilization could facilitate the establishment of new terrorist sanctuaries. And the Afghan government could become a sitting duck in the face of an emboldened Taliban.
But then again, a withdrawal would also meet the Taliban’s precondition for talks.
Leaving Afghanistan may trigger chaos. Or it may usher in peace. We simply don’t know. This uncertainty heightens the risks of withdrawal.
Tragically, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, there are no good options to end a war that has raged for nearly two decades.
Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif’s visit to Russia from Feb. 19 to Feb. 22 was a desperate attempt by Islamabad to woo Moscow into countering mounting American pressure on Pakistan to close safe havens used by the Taliban, most notably the Haqqani network. However, the growing Moscow-Islamabad bonhomie is not good news for Washington’s current Afghan strategy, as it unmistakably signifies changing Russian perceptions and priorities in South Asia. Pakistan and Russia are now aligning their approach to support a “political solution” to the Afghan conflict, which effectively means the Taliban’s rehabilitation in Afghan governing structures on Pakistani terms.
Several factors have brought Russia and Pakistan closer, including U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive posture toward Pakistan and the U.S.’s quest for a Taliban military defeat. Pakistan’s security establishment is strongly opposed to these policies and is trying hard to find trusted friends in its neighborhood. Moscow feels that Washington’s insistence on defeating the Taliban on the battlefield will only prolong American military presence in Afghanistan. It also diverts attention from the rising threat of ISIS’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan’s north, which Russia sees as a direct threat to both its own national security and that of the Central Asian states within its sphere of influence.
Russia’s growing ties with Pakistan are primarily aimed at serving two strategic purposes for Moscow. First, to blunt the threat of ISIS-Khorasan, and second, to undermine American influence. On Feb. 1, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zemir Kabulov, warned that “ISIS has nearly 7,000 active fighters, without taking into account several thousand of reservists.” Since Russian and Central Asian citizens constitute a sizeable chunk of ISIS, Pakistan is more than keen to exploit a Russian sense of vulnerability.
The fight against ISIS-Khorasan has led to an unlikely alliance of convenience between Russia and the Taliban. Russians are of the view that ISIS is a global threat and see the Taliban as a localized phenomenon. In December 2015, Kabulov stated that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours... Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize ISIS and they don’t recognize the ISIS leader [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantyskiy, conceded in December 2016 that Moscow maintained relations with the Taliban in order to ensure the safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan. During his visit to India in December 2017, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Russia was in favor of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, relating that no Afghan peace settlement could proceed without the Taliban’s participation.
Even though Moscow’s links with the Taliban have begun to strain Russia-Afghanistan and Russia-India relations, it is driven by a number of security concerns. Russian policymakers believe that dialogue with the Taliban, which they see as essential for maintaining long-term political stability in Afghanistan, would reduce the risk of terrorism diffusing from Afghanistan to Central Asia. They also believe that Pakistan can play a vital role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. On Feb. 20, Russia appointed an honorary consul to Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, prompting the provincial governor to term it a “new chapter” of renewed diplomatic ties between Pakistan and Russia.
Russia has also hosted regular diplomatic talks on resolving the Afghan crisis, ranging from the Moscow-Islamabad-Beijing summit in December 2016 to a multi-nation conference involving the Central Asian states, Iran, India and Afghan representatives in April 2017. These have yielded little fruit as far as reconciliation is concerned.
Pakistan too does not waste any opportunity to project itself as a valued partner in countering the threat of ISIS-Khorasan. Moscow and Islamabad are now planning to establish a commission on military cooperation to counter ISIS. On Feb. 20, Sergey Lavrov stated that, “We have confirmed Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity, which is in the entire region’s interests.” This is ironic given that Pakistan has been accused by Washington, Kabul and New Delhi of exporting terrorism in the region. Moreover, Moscow’s efforts to accommodate the Taliban as an instrument against ISIS-Khorasan are bound to negatively impact the geopolitics of Afghan conflict.
Pakistan’s enhanced relationship with Russia assumes particular significance in the wake of steep decline in relations between Washington and Islamabad. American and Afghan officials have repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take decisive action against the Taliban and Haqqani network fighters operating on its soil. As the U.S. continues to threaten the Pakistani military with punitive sanctions, and Washington continues to stall military sales, Pakistan is desperate to stave off U.S. pressure by cozying up to Russia. In Moscow, Khawaja Asif repeated what has been Pakistan’s stance on the resolution of the Afghan conflict: “The presence of foreign forces [the U.S. and NATO] in Afghanistan has achieved nothing over the last 17 years. Their monumental failures in Afghanistan and there is an effort to (blame) Pakistan and other countries for these failures.”
The Afghan conflict is one in which no single power holds the key to resolution. Though the ISIS-Khorasan is trying to take advantage of Afghanistan’s political and ethnic divisions, it has little future in the country. In fact, ISIS-Khorasan is more of a noxious nuisance than a strategic menace to Afghanistan as it does not control much Afghan territory: it predominantly operates in parts of Nangarhar province, particularly in areas where neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban have much control. It is largely made up of anti-Pakistan militants as well as disgruntled Taliban elements. Moreover, the sheer brutality of ISIS-Khorasan methods has aroused much local resistance.
If Pakistan takes decisive action to deny ISIS-Khorasan sanctuary on its soil and shows genuine willingness to cooperate with the Afghan government, ISIS-Khorasan would never be able to expand its territorial reach. The best course of action would be to strengthen the feeble Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan, rather than emboldening the Taliban in an attempt to weaken ISIS-Khorasan.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has put a peace offer on the table, and analysts say the ball is now in the Taliban’s court. But so far the militants are showing no sign of being interested.
Ghani’s offer calls for unconditional talks accompanied by a cease-fire, recognition of the Taliban as a political party, an office in Kabul and the release of some prisoners. Ghani said he would also try to get Taliban leaders removed from international terrorist lists, as well as provide them with passports to allow them to travel freely.
The Taliban, who have long demanded to talk directly to the United States before the Kabul government, replied with silence.
Early indications are not promising.
Over the weekend, the Taliban issued a rambling English- language statement urging Islamic clerics to boycott a gathering later this month in Indonesia, where religious leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia are to meet to see if they can offer a path to peace in Afghanistan. The conference in Bogar in Indonesia’s West Java is organized by the Indonesian Ulema Council, an association of clerics, but with official Afghan support.
The Taliban denounced the gathering, warning the Afghan clerics: “Do not afford an opportunity to the invading infidels in Afghanistan to misuse your name and participation in this conference as means of attaining their malicious objective.”
Another discouraging sign came from a Taliban official familiar with his movement’s stand on Ghani’s offer. He criticized it, telling The Associated Press that it did not address Taliban demands for the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan nor the implementation of an Islamic system.
Many in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly women’s rights activists, are fearful of the Taliban’s hard-line interpretation of an Islamic system and deeply oppose giving the group any room to implement it. During Taliban rule, which ended with the US-led invasion in 2001, girls were denied education and women access to jobs. Men were forced to wear beards, and music and television were outlawed.
Since their ouster, the Taliban have issued several statements saying they would allow girls to go to school — but under strict Islamic guidelines — and let women work — but segregated from male colleagues. They have not committed to women in leadership roles or to their equal participation with Afghan men.
The Taliban official said the aim of his movement’s war is two-fold — “to end the invasion and enforce an Islamic system. Has Ashraf Ghani talked about this? It seems Ghani does not want peace and is just joking.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Taliban position.
Still, Ghani’s peace offer has met with widespread approval. Though the president has repeatedly urged the Taliban to embrace peace talks, this was the first time he lay out a set of offers. Even neighbor Pakistan, who has been sharply criticized by Afghanistan and the United States for harboring Taliban on their soil, has lauded Ghani’s offer.
But analysts caution that many details are left uncertain, such as who would stop fighting first. And there are major unknowns external to the proposal itself. Can Ghani heal a deepening crisis within his own profoundly divided government enough to present a united front at the negotiation table? And the elephant in the room: Is the United States seeking a more permanent presence in Afghanistan?
A negotiated peace is widely seen as the only way to end Afghanistan’s war, which is now in its 17th year and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Over the years, it has cost the United States alone more than $122 billion.
“Any Afghanistan peace process is going to be long and difficult, with ups and downs, and there will always be plenty of room for skepticism that it won’t succeed,” said Andrew Wilder, vice-president of the Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. “However, I’m even more skeptical that any side will win the war, so the only alternative to another four decades of violence and bloodshed is to prioritize the peace process.”
Wilder will be among dozens of Afghan watchers attending this week’s conference on Afghanistan at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in the Norwegian capital beginning on Tuesday. In 2015 Oslo brokered previous talks with the Taliban.
Thomas Ruttig, co-founder of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network, called Ghani’s offer “a good beginning, not more, not less.”
“Most elements of the proposal have been brought up earlier, but now they come in a combined form,” he said. “A ceasefire was officially mentioned for the first time, but without any explanation: Who first, both sides together? And if the latter, how to get there? This needs talks first.”
The Taliban have been consistent in their demand for talks with the United States before talking to the Afghan government. Washington has been equally insistent in its official stance refusing to talk directly to the Taliban, though it has held secret talks in the past.
Ruttig also pointed out that the final declaration that came out of last month’s Kabul conference that produced Ghani’s peace offering promised that future talks could involve “contested aspects of the future international presence” in Afghanistan. Ruttig said that could provide an opening for direct or indirect talks between the US and the Taliban.
Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said there is also no legal obstacle to US talks with the Taliban because until now Washington has not declared the group a terrorist organization.
“If the US is really serious about peace in Afghanistan, then it will need to be more open to the idea of talking to a Taliban organization that’s given little indication that it’s prepared to negotiate with Kabul any time soon,” he said. “The best way for Washington to go into a dialogue with the Taliban would be to see it as a platform from which to make a direct appeal to the insurgents to speak directly with the Afghans.”
On Feb. 28, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan made the most comprehensive offer inviting the Taliban to join direct, formal peace talks with the Afghan government. The offer, made without preconditions, recognizes the role of the Taliban in Afghan politics and seeks to proceed toward a comprehensive peace agreement.
President Ghani’s offer is the result of the Kabul Process, which saw delegates from 30 countries and international organizations — including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union — gather and deliberate in Kabul.
The announcement of the peace initiative was preceded by months of national consensus building in Afghanistan. Members of the High Peace Council, the inclusive body of Afghan elders formed to steer efforts for peace and dialogue; the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah; and President Ghani had long deliberations and consultations with Afghan political figures, members of civil society, clergy, women and youth. They found overwhelming support for the initiative to reach a political settlement with the Taliban.
The peace offer is underpinned by our belief in the common equality of all Afghans and their right to live in peace and dignity. We believe that this offer will give the Taliban the opportunity to organize as a legitimate political force, pursue their goals through peaceful means and join the political process.
The Afghan government is firmly committed to addressing the core concerns and demands of the Taliban, including the future presence of the international military forces, amendments to our constitution and the release of Taliban prisoners.
The initiative also offers removal of the names of Taliban commanders from the sanctions lists maintained by the United Nations and others, which limit their movements and hinder their inclusion into mainstream Afghan society and polity.
Throughout the peace process and after the end of hostilities, the Afghan government will ensure the security of the Taliban and their families and help resettle former combatants as part of an agreement.
The government and people of Afghanistan were heartened by the support offered by the international community to our peace offer to the Taliban. We found strong endorsements for our commitment to guaranteeing the human rights of all Afghans, especially women. We are committed to maintaining the inclusivity of the Kabul Process with a prominent role for women.
We have further showed our flexibility by offering to meet with the Taliban either in Kabul or elsewhere in a mutually agreed location. Our aim in the initial meetings would be to have substantive discussions to demonstrate our commitment and gradually move toward a negotiated agreement and a peace accord.
Members of the international community pledged during the Kabul Process that they would strongly support the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue for peace, that they would continue to send unified messages to ensure its success.
The Afghan government has welcomed the offers from Islamic nations such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to use their positive influence to support our peace process.
Various respected scholars of Islam from Afghanistan and Pakistan will be meeting at a conference with Indonesian scholars in West Java later this month. They will draw on Islamic teachings and their religious authority to formulate ways to lend support to the peace process. Given the influence of religious scholars in our part of the world, such forums will go a long way in supporting the demand and desire of every Afghan for peace.
As we strive for a political settlement, we continue to ensure that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces stay strong and retain the capacity to defend the nation against acts of violence and terrorism by domestic, regional and international terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and the region.
This parallel fight against transnational terrorism to complement the peace process would not be possible without the continued support of the United States, NATO and our partners in the region. In addition to their military assistance, we look forward to their robust diplomatic support to help ensure the success of the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
The ball is now in the Taliban’s court: They must match our will, determination and courage to step forward for peace.
While Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has sought to negotiate with the Taliban to end the group’s wave of violence, talks could already be destined to fail.
The Kabul Process held its second session on February 28 after its inception in June 2017 with the participation of dozens of regional and global representatives. Ghani proposed an altruistic peace deal to the Taliban, despite his impulsive gesture of settling matters with them in the battlefield after a series of attacks by the group in January and February that inflicted severe casualties.
Had the Taliban agreed to accept the offer, Ghani’s peace proposal included approving amnesty for Taliban fighters, recognition of the Taliban as a political party, amending the constitution, and lifting sanctions on their leaders. The uniqueness of the offer lies in the fact that, unlike previous offers, it was not only directed toward Taliban, but also Pakistan.
Even though the peace proposal was vastly comprehensive and detailed, the Taliban will not indulge in armistice talks to negotiate peace right now for a litany of reasons.
First, Pakistan’s strategic depth policy in Afghanistan hasn’t changed despite immense pressure from the United States and its allies. In addition to funds and sanctuaries provided by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s military intelligence agency, to the Taliban, the civilian government in Islamabad is also chipping in to contribute in radicalizing the region.
The state government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, led by Imran Khan, has recently increased its funding to Haqqania madrassa, otherwise known as “Jihad University.” Haqqania was founded and directed by Sami-ul-Haq (father of Taliban). Many of the Taliban leaders are alumnis of the madrassa. The total amount of annual grants to Haqqania now exceeds $500,000. Imran Khan is a right-wing politician accused of furthering military generals’ agenda on civilian platform.
On the other hand, instead of relinquishing its use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy after international pressure, Pakistan is retaliating. After the Trump administration paused aid to Pakistan, and influenced the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to put the country on its “grey list” as of this coming June for financing terrorism, Islamabad has started challenging U.S. interests in the region instead of revisiting its Afghan policy.
A few days ago Russia, against whom Pakistan was once allied with the United States during the Cold War, opened an honorary consulate in Peshawar following the Pakistani foreign minister’s visit to Moscow. This consulate could facilitate Russian funds and arms transfers to the Taliban easily.
Second, the conflict in Afghanistan has become more complicated with each passing year. With Iran, China, and Russia taking high stakes in the war, it is becoming increasingly difficult to agree on a consensus deal to end the war. These countries foresee the United States’ long-term stay in Afghanistan as a threat to their interests, while Afghanistan considers the U.S. presence its guarantor to prevent collapse of the state.
Third, the Afghan government has little incentive and no contingency plan in hand to forge a deradicalization framework for returning fighters. Local Taliban commanders have tremendous resources at their disposal via the drug trade, ransoms, and local tariffs. The alternative isn’t as profitable.
Fourth, rewarding the Taliban with governmental concessions could derail an already dented crumpled progress in Afghanistan. During the last 16 years we have learned that the integration of former guerrilla fighters (Mujahideen) has stymied institution building and contributed to a dilapidated state bureaucracy.
Mujahideen have plundered billions of aid dollars and swamped security services with countless generals, impeding reform. It is unclear in what capacity the Taliban could be accommodated in if they reconcile. For example, Mullah Daud Nazari, a Taliban commander, and his men laid their arms down in Herat in 2012. In an interview in 2017 with a research company, he said that many of the big promises made to him by the government were not fulfilled.
Fifth, the Taliban and Pakistan still consider the Afghan government oblivious. The Taliban’s recently publicized letter to the American government is an example of that. They have consistently asked to negotiate with the United States only, bypassing the Afghan government. In the letter, they urged the United States to withdraw its troops. The Taliban attempted to exonerate themselves to the American public by offering to negotiate. With a majority of U.S. forces drawing down by the end of 2014, Taliban intensified their fight.
Past precedent has proven that the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan while the state is still fragile is “an end condition,” and there is no guarantee that Pakistan will not continue its proxy war in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Mujahideen rejected persistent peace proposals by Mohammad Najibullah’s government, and fought until the collapse of the state in 1992, after which a bloody civil war erupted. The Mujahideen’s dissipation and unwieldiness made it difficult for Pakistan to maintain its influence on them, so the ISI counterpoised and eventually overran them through its new surrogates: the Taliban. Even ISI’s favorite, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was not spared. By urging the United States to withdraw, it isn’t obvious why Pakistan will not repeat the history and attempt to subdue the Afghan state once again.
Peace with the Taliban or any other group indulgent to Pakistani influence is far-fetched and peculiar today in Afghanistan. Even if the Taliban agreed to settle for peace, Pakistan has the capability to found a new radical group through dozens of its madrassas, exactly like they created Taliban after Mujahideen. The way forward is for the United States is to sustain pressure on Pakistan until it abandons condoning terrorist groups to project its policy in Afghanistan.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie recently said in a tweet that the U.S. Congress is going to allocate $50 billion to the Afghan war in the next fiscal year, more than U.K.’s entire defense budget. That could swing the longest war U.S. has ever been involved in toward a decisive end. On the other hand, the Afghan government should prudently continue to neutralize warlords, fight corruption and reform the security apparatus while expanding trade and transit with Central Asia, India, China and Gulf nations to wean itself economically off Pakistan.
Is Afghanistan finally at a turning point – after so many disappointments and wasted opportunities?
At the Kabul Process II conference on 28 February, President Ashraf Ghani proposed to launch peace talks with the Taliban without preconditions, offering to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political group, and presenting a number of significant proposals to be included in a peace process.
The new peace plan was more comprehensive than anything previously presented and did not contain any of the aggressive language so often heard in the past. It did not offend the Taliban by calling on Pakistan to “deliver” the enemy to the negotiating table, but appealed to the Taliban directly.
Furthermore, the peace plan was not presented as an ultimatum. On the contrary, the document states that “the Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organization, to peace talks.” In short: this was something very new!
So far there has not been any Taliban response to the plan presented in Kabul. If the Taliban needs more time before responding, then I consider that to be a positive sign. The Government and its partners have probably spent weeks – perhaps months – developing the plan. To demand a quick and simple “yes” or “no” from the other side would not only be unreasonable, it would contradict the tone and substance of the Kabul plan – and undermine its credibility.
In spite of its many positive elements, the plan is problematic to the Taliban. Until now, two Taliban positions have remained constant. First of all, the Taliban has insisted on discussing with the US before conducting talks with Afghans. Secondly, it has rejected “direct talks” with the Afghan Government, which it considers to lack legitimacy.
The rationale for talking to the US is clear: the Taliban considers the US/NATO presence to be a foreign occupation. Its main objective has always been to bring it to an end. Any discussion of questions of lesser importance is meaningless if there is no US readiness to discuss this fundamental demand.
In my opinion, there is a certain logic in the Taliban’s insistence on talking to the US. The military strategy has primarily been formulated in Washington. The US military presence in Afghanistan has been overwhelming – at one stage reaching 100,000 troops. Even the current Afghan government was established as a result of US intervention.
In light of its dominant role in determining military strategy, the US should also accept a more prominent role in shaping the peace. US envoys have – in the past – met sporadically with Taliban representatives in Doha and in Europe. A future US withdrawal plan cannot be determined by US-Taliban discussions. However, the Taliban would need to understand that – under the right circumstances – there will be an end to what they see as a foreign occupation.
A peace process will have to be “Afghan led and Afghan owned”. However, it is my conviction – based on recent discussions – that early US-Taliban discussions could open up for meaningful intra-Afghan negotiations – including between the Taliban and the Government. If my impression is correct, then a more prominent US role would be a small price to pay.
I have been able to discuss with Taliban representatives – sporadically – over a period of nine years. I do not believe that the Taliban has any ambition to turn back to the dark years of the 1990s. Nor do I believe that the Taliban wants to isolate Afghanistan from the international community. The Taliban understands that the country needs a foreign presence and assistance to develop and prosper.
The document presented at the Kabul conference states that “we must have the courage to listen to grievances, analyze the root causes and drivers of conflict, and hear a diversity of proposals for reconciliation”. This is a critically important part of the proposal. Hopefully, the constructive approach it reflects will also guide future talks.
At this juncture, there is a need for confidential exchanges more than public statements: an exploratory stage that could determine if there is a sufficient basis for negotiations. Such confidentiality is required to ensure that each party to the conflict is given the opportunity to present its own narrative to its own audience.
Furthermore, there will be a need for the involvement of a third party: to convey messages at an early stage; to help shape the format and the sequences of discussions; and to find solutions to disputes that will inevitably endanger the entire process.
Afghanistan may be at a turning point. However, to move into a peace process will require great caution, patience and flexibility.
Here in the 17th year of American conflict in Afghanistan, and in the 39th year overall of nearly continuous strife there, everyone seems to be grasping for solutions to end the misery. The Americans are asking the Afghans to do more to secure the stability of the country, while asking the Taliban to do less to undermine it.
It seems that the Pakistanis are seeking the exact opposite, while the Afghans are looking for stability, afraid that the Americans might leave. The Taliban ostensibly is looking for instability, afraid that the Americans might stay. And everyone is asking for reconciliation talks, yet somehow, these talks remain frustratingly elusive.
Underneath the din -- all the arguments about troop numbers and war strategy, all the discussions of who's in cahoots with whom and how much it is all going to cost -- lies only one inescapable truth: For the United States, the last remaining national security objective is to prevent the country from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups bent on attacking the homeland.
All other arguments and objectives for staying, such as establishing a Western-style democracy, developing Afghanistan's hobbling economy, and improving the lives of the Afghan people, are both laudable and important. But none of them alone can justify the continued commitment of US troops and morale.
While the threat of such an attack on the United States is not unique to Afghanistan -- and if we're being honest, we should recognize that the threat from Afghanistan has diminished -- the fact remains that the attacks on September 11 emanated from this region. So there is a special obligation for the United States to preclude the recurrence of such a scenario. As minimal as the threat may be currently, it needs to be fully extinguished and never allowed to flicker again.
If we assume that the United States will not stay in Afghanistan forever, then there are only two pathways to ensuring that terrorist safe havens are not re-established in Afghanistan: The Afghan government must become strong and stable enough to fully patrol and effectively control the country, thereby preventing safe havens for terrorist groups from forming, or the Taliban must lose interest in establishing these safe havens in the first place. Even after all these years, neither scenario elicits hope.
For the better part of the last decade, the United States has been trying furiously to achieve the first goal while giving only cursory effort to the second. The nitty-gritty details may differ, but both the Obama and Trump administrations have focused efforts on training and building the Afghan security forces to create political space for an eventual reconciliation dialogue. However, after many false starts, it would be prudent to take a closer look at what is actually realistic and feasible.
Despite the infusion of $70 billion by the United States to train and equip Afghan security forces, the Taliban remain in control of or exert influence in over 40% of Afghan districts. Not only has this number not shrunk in recent years, but it has actually grown, meaning that Afghan forces have thus far simply been unable to keep up with their Taliban adversaries.
To achieve the goal of fully patrolling and controlling the whole country, the Afghan national security forces need the willingness and the capacity to do so. The United States can help with the capacity. But with willingness, it unfortunately cannot. Ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has struggled to have a strong central government with influence over all of its territory. It takes a special kind of optimism to believe it can be achieved in a few short years.
While the United States should not give up on its goal of developing a fully capable Afghan fighting force, it is prudent to assume that it may take longer than the nation is able to ultimately stomach. Last year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued an eye-popping and depressingreport on just how far from this goal we are.
While President Trump, in his own words, was persuaded to not pull out of Afghanistan, we may next have a president who won't be. Consequently, it remains a realistic possibility that the United States will ultimately pull out of Afghanistan before the Afghans are capable of fully securing their own country. In such a scenario, our fate then rests on whether the Taliban seeks to re-establish safe havens in the areas it controls.
Talking to the Taliban
Talking to the Taliban is hard for many Americans to fathom. Given that the United States originally invaded Afghanistan with the express purpose of driving the Taliban from power, it is anathema to now think of pushing them to the negotiating table over the future of the country as a victory.
But victory is a nebulous concept. And just as the objectives of the United States have evolved over the last 16 years, so too have the Taliban's. As Seth Jones writes in his recent Foreign Affairs article, the Taliban is a different organization today than it was when the US invaded. Its structure has changed, its leaders have changed, and in fact its whole philosophy may be changed. Jones indicates that after many recent setbacks, it may no longer have the ability to take over urban areas, let alone rule the entire country. For all of its issues, the presence of the United States has prevented the Taliban from reassuming power in Afghanistan.
All of this leads us to the conclusion that negotiating a political settlement that involves the Taliban, including extracting a commitment that no Afghan territory will be used as a safe haven, is the only way out. The Afghan government must remain in the lead on such talks -- after all, they will have to enforce whatever agreement is ultimately reached -- but their leverage flows almost entirely from the support and presence of the United States.
Other regional actors, who are exerting enormous influence over events in the country, must also be brought into the fold, for any of them could undermine the final settlement if they are left on the outside looking in. Ultimately, for the talks to be successful, the United States needs to refocus its entire presence on establishing and supporting them.
Obstacles to negotiations
Decades of war have whetted the appetites on all sides -- and the relevant country governments have all been ready for several years now. There are significant obstacles to such talks, of course -- not the least being the significant bloodshed exacted by the Taliban throughout Afghanistan in recent weeks, demonstrating the Taliban's utter lack of respect for the sanctity of life.
But without the possibility of a political settlement, the Taliban have no incentive to ease their attacks. In the current stalemate, they have nothing to lose by continuing their murderous campaign.
This brings us to the curious development of the last few weeks: The Taliban itself has called on the United States to begin peace talks and sent signals that it is ready to engage in a dialogue. While it is always nearly impossible to decipher the logic of the Taliban, this could be a sign that they see no path to success, however they define it, which has driven them to seek other solutions.
The long-held axiom in peace negotiations is that no one negotiates when they think they are going to win the war. By offering to engage in talks, the Taliban may have given us a window into their mindset, and they have most assuredly given us an opening. The United States should take advantage of it.
Afghan civilians are becoming casualties of war in alarming numbers. More than 28,000 civilians have been killed and more than 50,000 injured since 2009, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). This number does not include thousands of others who died between 2001 and 2008.
2017 saw 3,438 dead and 7,015 injured — 65 percent of the casualties were attributed to the anti-government elements, namely the Taliban and Islamic State. Twenty-five percent of these casualties have been attributed to the pro-government elements (including 16 percent attributed to the Afghan National Defense Security Forces, or ANDSF, and 2 percent to international military forces). Eleven percent of these casualties were attributed to crossfire, and 1 percent to border shelling from Pakistan, while the rest cannot be attributed to any warring parties.
In January 2018, a car bomb attack by the Taliban using an ambulance killed over 103 and injured over 200 people, a textbook example of a war crime. Incidents like these happen in highly populated areas where civilians go about their daily lives. In this particular case, the attack took place near the old building of Ministry of Interior and a hospital where men, women, and children gathered to receive public services.
The main problem is the multiplicity of warfronts in Afghanistan. The Afghan government claims it is currently fighting over 20 different terrorist groups, as well as drug lords, while also attempting to rebuild its weak institutions and garner legitimacy. Another problem is the lack of attention and prioritization of the matter of civilian lives by both national and international actors.
Incident after incident, the Afghan government promises to avenge or launch investigations, which never end. Afghan officials send their thoughts and prayers with no real impact on prevention of further deaths. A recent declaration by the Afghan Ulema (religious scholars) barely mentioned the issue of civilian protection.
Consultations about a possible peace process overlook the issue of the protection of civilian lives. Emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties has rarely surfaced in fore such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, a forum discussing a possible framework for peace between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States.
The ANDSF must ensure that their rules of engagement and operations include measures that ensure the safety of noncombatants. Protection of civilians must be institutionalized. Stricter control of Afghanistan borders, hunting down precursors to explosives, and raising the issue at the UN and other international arenas are some of the other ways to address the problem.
Among international forces, the US military, which carries out most of the airstrikes in Afghanistan, has not only moral and legal obligations to protect civilians, but also for practical reasons it has to take the matter seriously. US military veterans such as General David Petraeus and Chris Kolenda have acknowledged that civilian casualties by international forces sustained the war and concluded that protection of civilians is essential to the success of US mission in Afghanistan.
The rest of the international community and humanitarian organizations bear the responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. Recording civilian casualties is a great service to the families of the victims, who would hopefully one day be able to seek justice, but recording alone is not enough. The focus should be on prevention. How can further deaths of innocents be prevented? The international community such as the UN, European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and others can help in building the capacity of the ANDSF. They can also raise concerns about the matter with respective actors and emphasize on protection of civilian.
For the Taliban, if it is serious about taking part in a peace process, it must cease attacking civilian targets. No one is winning this war. The Afghan government has made a generous offer by signaling it is willing to enter into negotiations without conditions. The Taliban should seize the moment and enter into negotiations with the Afghan government. The sides should agree to a ceasefire which can help drastically reduce the suffering of civilians.
For too long, Afghan civilians have suffered from this chronic conflict. They deserve to be included in national and international debates about war and peace. Civilian deaths shouldn’t be treated merely as statistics and or an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.
Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish poet, once eloquently remarked, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” This week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made such an overture to the Taliban by outlining a bold peace proposal in Kabul.
Ghani’s conciliatory offer invited the Taliban to enter peace talks without preconditions, renounce violence and agree to a ceasefire. In return, the Taliban would be recognized as a legitimate political group.
Under Ghani’s proposal, the Afghan government would also allow the Taliban to open a political office in Kabul, issue Taliban members and their families Afghan passports, release the Taliban prisoners, get Taliban leaders removed from various blacklists and provide immunity, security and financial guarantees to Taliban members to resettle in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s peace pitch follows the Taliban’s recent open letter in which the group rambles about their battlefield gains, underscores the U.S.’s decisive role in the Afghan conflict and insists to engage in direct negotiations with Washington and not Kabul.
Interestingly, this comes amid an intensified U.S. military campaign against the group and in the wake of President Donald Trump’s statementthat talks with the Taliban are no longer on the table.
It should be noted that the Taliban are unlikely to ever be in a stronger position than they are right now to negotiate peace. Ghani’s peace bargain is as good as any deal for the Taliban. The question now is whether the Taliban and their sponsors will embrace it.
By any measure, the Taliban have transformed and are no longer the same group they were nearly 22 years ago. Today, the group is broadly divided between hardliners and moderates. The hardliners, a numerical minority of the group’s fighting force, comprise the Taliban’s leadership based in Pakistan.
These hardliners are mainly ideologues, allied closely with Pakistan’s intelligence services and cannot freely call shots on whether to engage in peace talks or not without Pakistan’s consent. Simply put, these Taliban elements are empowered by Pakistan to kill, but not to negotiate.
There are also moderate voices within the Taliban who are the numerical majority and includes local commanders, some shadow governors, foot soldiers and hired guns who prefer to talk peace.
However, both the hardliner and moderate Taliban are further split into smaller factions, and these groups often hold conflicting views on reconciliation. The hardliners purportedly believe in a military solution to the Afghan war and they have alienated the moderate Taliban voices, which favor negotiations.
Another challenge is that the Taliban have lost their pragmatic leaders through systematic internal marginalization, assassinations, detention and intimidation. Those leaders have been carefully replaced by uncompromising extremist elements who have closely weaved the Taliban movement into a broader extremist framework through alliances with terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network.
What do the Taliban hardliners want? In simplest terms, they want their Islamic Emirate back. In their view, the Taliban are making steady strides in that direction by expanding their control or influence over more territory, made possible not through negotiations but by their military efforts.
The Taliban’s territorial advances have animated the group’s resolve, and they have begun to put in place alternative government systems in areas they control. Meanwhile, many Taliban fighters have adopted a proper rotation system similar to conventional forces — first training in Pakistan, for example, then deploying to fight in Afghanistan, before retreating to Pakistan to rest.
If the Taliban leaders are serious about peace, how should they respond to Ghani’s peace proposal?
For starters, the Taliban need to publicly pronounce to Afghans their vision for Afghanistan. Does the Taliban want a country that resembles the one governed by their once-pariah regime, recognized merely by three countries?
Conversely, does the Taliban want an Afghanistan that is desired by the bulk of the Afghan people, where the people find the Taliban’s ideology too extreme and are defying it? The latter is a new, present-day Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, the choice between these two prospects seems rather clear: Continue to fight for something the Afghan people do not accept, or moderate the group’s extreme ideology to a level that is amenable to the people.
The Taliban also need to engage with the Afghan people, not by stoking fear but through dialogue, which the group has so far failed to do.
Second, the Taliban’s leadership council should demonstrate their seriousness to negotiate peace by appointing a peace envoy, a principal who would engage in negotiations with all sides, especially the Afghan government.
The leadership council should also appoint a Taliban negotiating committee, with explicit authority to confer, accept or veto any peace terms during the talks on behalf of the Taliban movement. This envoy and the negotiating committee should include those who are trusted by all sides, including the moderate Taliban, and who can genuinely coalesce the Taliban movement around one negotiated deal.
In addition to permitting the Taliban envoy to open a political office in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Afghan government should also allow the committee members to travel freely for negotiations.
More crucially, the Taliban committee should openly unveil their peace proposal for Afghanistan, a proposal that does not just offer a buffet of fantasies or vague justifications but one that is realistic.
Meanwhile, the Taliban envoy should publicly articulate a vision to the Afghan public by engaging with the media and in public debates. The Taliban must also realize that no perfect peace deal is achievable, for either them or the Afghan government.
For their part, Afghan political leaders must build an internal consensus on reconciliation, which is missing. The position of Afghan leaders on Taliban reconciliation varies based on where these leaders sit and who bankrolls them.
The challenge is that internal Afghan politics have become an important piece of the puzzle, crowded by a Sicilian-type mafia comprising warlords, strongmen, drug lords and criminals.
Toxic internal forces have made the Afghan political scene increasingly predatory, operating as an undemocratic patronage machine, where turf battles among factional leaders for money and muscle is a common occurrence.
These leaders could play a critical spoiler in peace talks with the Taliban, mainly to protect their vested interests and to avoid sharing the lucrative Afghan patronage pie.
Under these conditions, the United States should demand changes from Afghan leaders, particularly those who are actively imperiling Afghanistan’s future. This should include managing the complexities of the palace politics and a horde of the self-serving political mafia who engage in intrigue, deception and harmful machinations.
The United States should make it clear to the Afghan political class that Washington’s support is conditional on their behavior.
Unfortunately, the Taliban have so far been incapable of even pronouncing the word "peace," let alone negotiating it. Ghani’s peace proposal, however, offers a new window of opportunity to Taliban leaders and their backers to reciprocate, negotiate and become part of Afghanistan’s political fabric. This opportunity should not be wasted
It is both what we knew had to happen one day and something no one ever expected to happen.