Is it time for optimism in Afghanistan?
On February 28, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban peace talks without preconditions as a way to end the nearly two-decade-long conflict in his country. A month later, as delegates from more than 20 countries gathered in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to discuss ways to restore stability to Afghanistan, there still hasn’t been a formal response from the Taliban. Officials, meanwhile, have held out hope that the absence of a reply is cause for optimism. “[W]e have not seen them reject the proposal, which … is in itself a positive sign,” Alice Wells, the U.S. State Department official who oversees South and Central Asia, said earlier this month at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “And I would underscore our hope and expectation that the Taliban leadership will analyze the proposal seriously and carefully.”
Ghani’s unprecedented overture to the Taliban includes the offer of talks without preconditions. It would also allow its members to run for government, release Taliban fighters from prison, and require foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. The Taliban, who ruled the country until the US-led invasion in retaliation for the attacks of September 11, 2001 (which was conceived and executed by al-Qaeda, a group granted refuge in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime), is reportedly considering the offer. That has not prevented it from carrying out attacks across the country—nor does it mean its leaders will accept the proposal.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region at NYU, told me that Ghani’s offer is significant in that it addresses many of the Taliban’s major concerns. But, he said, it doesn’t address its main concern: its belief that Ghani lacks the authority or legitimacy to make such an offer. “The Afghan Taliban were not overthrown by the Afghan government. They were overthrown by the United States,” Rubin said. “And they want to talk to the United States. If they talk to the Afghan government, to them, it’s like surrendering—because, to them, it means that it was legitimate to overthrow them.”
And yet, as The New York Times reported Tuesday, the mood at the Tashkent conference, the latest international effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, was “unusually optimistic.” Ghani’s offer to the Taliban came at a similar conference in Kabul bringing together 20 countries. There are also several other mechanisms in place working towards peace in Afghanistan; many involve a combination of its neighbors and either the United States or Russia. Most, but not all, include the Afghan government. None include the Taliban.
After years of criticizing America’s war in Afghanistan, President Trump followed his two predecessors by sending US soldiers to the country. His South Asia strategy involved pressuring Pakistan, which he accused of giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt,” by suspending security assistance to Islamabad. He also wants India to do more. As part of this effort, the US is helping Afghan forces fight the Taliban “in order to drive them to the negotiating table.”
The Taliban remain the most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan. Its membership is Afghan (unlike the other groups, whose ranks include many foreign fighters), it enjoys some support among the population, and controls about one-third of the country—more territory than at any point since the US-led invasion in 2001. (The Afghan government controls all the major population centers.)
What all these international efforts underscore is that while the international community wants a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, many global powers who have meddled in the country for decades—if not centuries—still influence what happens within its borders. US Army General John Nicholson, the senior-most US commander in Afghanistan, told the BBC last week that weapons seized from Taliban fighters were allegedly supplied by Russia. (Russia, whose painful history in Afghanistan dates back to the 1980s, has denied this.) Russia is reportedly arming the Taliban in order to fight the Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in the country. (It also supports the Afghan government.) Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s national-security adviser, said last week in Washington that Kabul disagreed with Moscow’s distinction “between good and bad terrorists.”
“Of course, we’ve been provided assurance that [the] Taliban will not be provided with weapons and resources,” he said. “We will welcome that assurance and we would like to see that in practice.”
Afghanistan’s other neighbors have their own interests—interests that are often at odds with one another, as well as with the Afghan government. Pakistan, the Taliban’s ally and major benefactor, is afraid of being hemmed in between two unfriendly neighbors, India and Afghanistan. India, in turn, is nervous about the prospect of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan because they provide a semblance of stability to the region. Iran, which borders Afghanistan in the west, is also reportedly arming the Taliban in order to fight ISIS. (It supports the Afghan government, as well.) China sees stability in the country as a major necessity if the belt-and-road initiative, its massive infrastructure project, is to succeed. China is also nervous about the presence of Uighur separatists inside Afghanistan; ditto for Uzbekistan, which is battling its own Islamist militancy.
Atmar said the number of foreign fighters had increased in the country, as the number of international forces fell over the past four years. The government’s goal, he said, was to “separate the Afghan Taliban from the foreign fighters. And we can make peace with them because they are Afghans—if they are interested in peace.”
If the Taliban accepted Ghani’s offer of talks (a big if), it would mark the first time since 2015 that the group’s leadership met with Afghan government officials. That effort in Pakistan faltered after it emerged that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, had died two years previously, but the group had managed to conceal it. Other efforts at peace talks also failed. Hamid Karzai, the previous Afghan president, tried in 2014 to talk secretly to the Taliban, but the Obama administration blocked his attempts. Karzai himself had opposed previous US attempts to negotiate with the insurgents. The US role in Afghanistan itself has changed since 2001. At the height of the war on terrorism, there were about 100,000 US troops in the country. Today, that figure is down to about 15,000 troops who work with the Afghan military to fight the Taliban and international terrorist groups, including ISIS.
Atmar, the Afghan national-security adviser, cast doubt over whether the Taliban were still monolithic, arguing that because it lacks the strong leadership it once had, it is brought together by foreign influence. “There are leaders now among the Taliban … that question the continuation of the conflict,” he said. “And they are certainly in contact with our peace council and with the government, and they are asking for a process whereby they and their families are protected to engage in peace.” But, he said, there are also elements that are irreconcilable. The Afghan government, he said, would engage with one group and fight the other.
But Rubin, who previously worked as a US diplomat and talked to the Taliban, said the militants are less fragmented than they are perceived to be. “There’s a stereotype about the Taliban that they’re a bunch of fractious tribesmen, but it’s not true,” he said. “They do speak with one voice. In fact, they are much more consistent in their policy positions than either the US or Afghan governments.”
Afghanistan has endured one of the longest wars in its contemporary history, a war that started in December 1979 with the Soviet invasion and continues today. Fighting in Afghanistan since October 2001, this also is the longest war in American history. And it has casualties: There is not an exact figure, but estimates show that during these four decades of war, millions of Afghans died or suffered disabling injuries. Several million Afghans have migrated or displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The estimated cost of this war for the involved parties is trillions of US dollars, yet this costly, lengthy fighting has not brought about peace.
After the defeat of former USSR in 1989, Afghanistan went through a civil war until 2001, and then became the frontline of the war against global terrorism and insurgency. After many years of fighting, the Afghan government and its international allies agree there is likely no end to this war without a reconciliation process.
Efforts for reconciliation with Taliban insurgents have failed repeatedly. One reason for this failure was tight pre-conditions of the government for negotiations; the Taliban would need to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. To the Taliban, it sounded more like a surrender offer than a reconciliation. Another reason that peace talks failed was that the negotiation involved Pakistan, the wrong moderator with the wrong actors in the wrong place.
On Feb. 28, 2018, during the Kabul Process Conference, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani said he is ready to talk with the Taliban without preconditions. He emphasized that the basis for any negotiation would be the constitution, but he also offered a review of the constitution. Through a peace roadmap, with political and legal frameworks, his proposal to the Taliban includes a ceasefire; recognition of the Taliban as a political party; security for all citizens, including the reconciled Taliban; and facilitating the reintegration of Taliban returnees and their families. However, human rights and, in particular, women’s rights are non-negotiable.
Following the Kabul conference, a conference on Afghanistan titled “Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Connectivity” was held on March 26-27 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The conference organized by Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev drew representatives from 25 countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, European Union, United States, Russia, China and Pakistan. Their attendance was meant to support the Afghan peace proposal and encourage the Taliban to engage in peace talks. A declaration issued at the end of the conference supports an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” political settlement.
President Ghani defines the current violence in the country as the “fifth wave” of political violence and last year noted Pakistan’s “undeclared war of aggression” against Afghanistan. Now, he also has renewed an offer of talks with Pakistan.
After nearly 17 years of presence in Afghanistan, the US government appears to have realized that Pakistan has contributed to the violence in the country. Frustrated by safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan, President Trump has described the US-Pakistan relationship as worthless. His first tweet on New Year’s Day 2018 lashed out at Pakistan: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
We are pleased by the unprecedented national and international support that is building for peace in Afghanistan. The declaration issued by the participants of the Kabul Process Conference said a peace agreement would be “a victory for all its parties and a defeat for none.” Members of the UN Security Council also welcomed Afghanistan’s offer and called upon the Taliban “to accept this offer.” The Afghan government and its international allies have promised to keep up pressure on the militants until they accept the offer.
So far, there is no official response from the Taliban. This means business as usual for the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces and the NATO allies: fighting insurgents across the country. President Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia has no end date and is condition-based.
Although the Afghan forces are determined to fight those who do not reconcile, many Afghans remain optimistic about the opportunity for peace. The peace proposal could put an end to this war, but it is up to the Taliban and Pakistan to accept this unique opportunity to end a no-win game.
“The US policy in Afghanistan is working,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters. “We’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”
Such a refrain is making a comeback in US policy circles tired of the 17-year war, which has cost the United States, by some estimates, at least $1 trillion and perhaps as much as $2 trillion and the lives of 2,300 service members.
President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform of disengagement from state-building enterprises, announced his strategy to increase troop levels in order to help Afghan forces defeat the Taliban while at the same time increasing pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist sanctuaries. He said he had been convinced by his advisers that a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS [the Islamic State] and al-Qaeda.” The Trump strategy of “principled realism” is clearly more of a counterterrorism effort.
“We are not nation-building again…We are killing terrorists” in the words of Trump. US and NATO forces are at a stalemate, raising real concerns that withdrawing from Afghanistan could destabilize the country and result in a Taliban victory. The Obama administration reached a similar point in 2009 and we saw overtures being made to the Taliban to begin peace talks. Some of the concerns raised at the time have still not been resolved.
Which Taliban Do We Talk To?
We hear policymakers in Afghanistan, the United States, and Russia refer to the need to bring “moderate” elements in the Taliban to the negotiating table. Moderate Taliban is a term used for any Taliban commander who takes the position that a military victory is not possible – once these individuals are identified, the question becomes how much influence they can bring to a formal peace process.
The Afghan government has to play an important role in identifying the “moderate” Taliban. The fact that the government made a peace deal in 2016 with the Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun Islamist warlord who had been accused of terrible atrocities in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, raised concerns among non-Pashtun groups and the Shia Hazara community as well as ordinary Afghans who see him as a divisive force. This alliance has definitely weakened the Afghan government’s credibility with minority groups in the country. The Afghan government for its part has complained that when individuals are identified they seem to disappear or are killed – and they blame Pakistan for this state of affairs.
The death of Mullah Mansour in 2016 was the result of a US drone strike tacitly approved by Pakistan as he was returning from talking to Iranian and Russian officials who have, according to some reports, sided with the Taliban in order to check the influence of the Islamic State. The death of Mansour angered the Taliban and accelerated the departure of its leaders from Pakistan-controlled areas into southern Afghanistan, making it all the more difficult to identify the different factions within the group.
The other problem is that the Afghan government has made it clear that moving toward negotiating with the Taliban is only possible if violence declines, and the Taliban agree to abide by the Afghan constitution and cut its ties to al-Qaeda – none of which appears to be high on the agenda of the new Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Who Should Do the Talking?
This time around, the ability to talk to the Taliban is hampered by the political changes underway in the region. US-Pakistan relations are at a problematic juncture because both Congress and the president agree that Pakistan has not acted in good faith and has provided sanctuaries for terrorist groups in its territory. The release of $900 million in Coalition Support Funds approved in the 2017 defense spending legislation has been blocked pending certification that Pakistan has taken specific actions against the Haqqani Network – the last time Pakistan received funds was in March 2017 from the 2016 defense spending legislation. In addition, in January 2018, the State Department announced that it was suspending security assistance to Pakistan, but civilian development and economic assistance would continue. The Pakistani government expressed its displeasure and indicated that these moves would be counterproductive to US counterterrorism policy in the region. Since the main commander networks in the Afghan insurgency have historically maintained a presence in Pakistan this is a significant roadblock to attempts to jumpstart the negotiation process.
Any attempts to talk to the Taliban will also have to factor in Russia and Iran. These states have made major gains regionally as a result of their involvement in the crisis in Syria. They are now seizing the opportunity to step into the vacuum created by what they perceive to be a long, drawn out, withdrawal by the United States in Afghanistan. Russia has hosted regional talks on Afghanistan since December 2016 – the first was with China and Pakistan; the second in February 2017 also included India, Iran, and Afghanistan, bringing the number to six; and the last in April 2017 added the five Central Asian republics to the mix. The United States was invited to the 11-country talks but chose not to attend because it was viewed as a “vanity project” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Afghanistan, India and China favor engaging the United States since it is the country with the most boots on the ground.
Both Russia and Iran have negotiated with the Taliban in recent years for different reasons. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan from the beginning has been to stabilize the country and position itself as a counterweight to US policy in the region. It is also interested in checking the flow of drugs to Central Asia and keeping the Islamic State from establishing a foothold. The Russians have reportedly reached out to those elements in the Taliban who are interested in a diplomatic resolution, rumored to have armed Taliban fighters, and supportive of Iran’s military training of the Taliban.
Iran for its part is interested in making sure that the government that comes to power in Kabul is a friendly one aligned with their interests. Iran signed an agreement in 2016 with Afghanistan and India to pursue economic cooperation to pursue a $31 billion project to develop its Arabian sea port at Chabahar. The support for the Taliban is mainly aimed at restricting the growth of the Islamic State, with its transnational jihadist message, in Afghanistan. Iran is known to have provided training for the Taliban, offering sanctuary and support to Taliban commanders and helping the Taliban recruit among the Afghan refugee population in Iran.
China has also reached out to the Taliban. Beijing is worried by the growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Chinese concern in securing the region led to an agreement in December 2017 with the Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan to set up a new military base in Badakhshan. They have urged the Taliban to accept the offer made in February this year by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to recognize the movement and place it on the path to political legitimacy. China’s interest is closely linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion project which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and will require the construction of road, ports, and power projects. China is also concerned because instability in the region has attracted groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM is also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party) a group affiliated with al-Qaeda and founded in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. ETIM’s goal is an independent state that would encompass large swathes of China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The presence of training camps were confirmed during the recent bombing attack conducted by the United States, which targeted camps maintained by the Taliban and the ETIM in Badakhshan.
The Trump administration’s interest in talking to the Taliban is not surprising. Trump started calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan on Twitter as early as 2011. He has called the war a waste of money and lives and urged then-President Obama to pull American troops out. His announcement of an increase in troop commitment to Afghanistan last year was apparently made after convincing arguments from his military advisers. As he charts a more independent policy with the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump might see the ability to negotiate with the Taliban as a precursor to a US departure from the country.
However, it is important to remember that the Taliban has come to the negotiating table only when they gain ground militarily and this time appears to be no different. The Taliban has made substantial gains. In November 2015, the Afghan government controlled about 72 percent of the country while the insurgents had influence in 7 percent. USAF data released to CNN indicate that those numbers changed in 2017 to 56 percent under Afghan government influence or control and 30 percent under Taliban influence or control. Unofficial estimates of Taliban influence or control go up to 70 percent. Violence has accelerated in the last few months as the January 2018 bombings on the Intercontinental Hotel and other attacks show the Taliban and ISIS making headway even in the capital city.
Talking to the Taliban under these conditions is going to raise concerns among non-Pashtun groups like the Tajiks and Uzbeks (who also comprise the dominant groups in the Afghan National Army) who will view this as strengthening the Taliban and Pashtuns at the expense of other Afghan groups. In 2009 similar conditions led to concerns that militias formerly associated with the Northern Alliance, which fought in the civil war of the 1990s, were rearming. In 2017, a Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan comprising Tajik warlord-turned-provincial governor of Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor, ethnic Hazara leader and deputy to the government’s chief executive Mohammed Mohaqiq, and Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is in exile in Turkey, came together uniting three of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minorities against the supposed tyranny of the government of President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun.
Under these conditions it is not clear that the United States and its allies are going to accomplish much by talking to the Taliban. In fact, given the ethnic and political complexity of the region, negotiations with the Taliban could see greater instability and violence. It may be better for the United States to join the regional efforts underway to bring stability to Afghanistan as a way to extricate itself from its longest war.
Residents of the northwestern province of Baghdis, home to Afghanistan’s highest concentration of pistachio forests, warn that armed gangs and Taliban fighters have taken over the precious natural resource and now make millions of dollars from selling the nuts.
The province’s pistachio forests had long been considered a resource that all could draw on, as long as locals harvested the crop at the proper time and handed a portion over to the government.
They once spread across 95,000 hectares in Baghdis but have dwindled to around 30,000 hectares over the past four decades.
Officials from the provincial department of agriculture and livestock blame local strongmen, armed gangs and the Taliban for the destruction of this valuable commodity. Ordinary people also chop down trees for firewood and have damaged the crop by harvesting the nuts too early.
Ahmed Irfan, the head of natural resources at the provincial department of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, said, “According to a survey conducted on the revenue of these forests in 2013, it had yields of 33,750 metric tons of pistachio, which was estimated to be worth 60 million dollars. Now pistachio revenues have dropped to 45 million dollars a year, most of which goes into the pockets of the insurgents as well armed gangs.”
According to Irfan, although there are more than 60 community councils and 90 forest guards in the area, three-quarters of the forest was beyond department’s control. He said that at least 180 rangers were needed to patrol and protect the pistachio forests.
Locals confirm that the beautiful mountain ranges, lush with tulips in the springtime when they are a traditional holiday destination, have become a safe haven for insurgents.
“Last year, when our relatives went to harvest pistachios during the season, they were confronted by insurgents who fired at their feet and did not allow them to harvest,” civil society activist Abdul Raziq Siddiqi said.
Badghis pistachio, prized for its excellent flavor, is mainly bought by traders from the western Afghan province of Herat and exported to countries such as India and Iran, or even further afield to Europe.
The crop is generally ready to be harvested in June and July, and even a decade ago, locals adhered to a practice whereby a local commission would announce when the nuts were ripe. Now, local officials say that pistachio is gathered prematurely, which impacts on the sustainability of the harvest.
Those who collect pistachios must give eight kilograms for every 56 kg they collect to the government as form of tax. Local officials say that for the last half-a-dozen years locals have been paying this levy to the Taliban, rather than the municipality.
The natural forests stretch from the districts of Kushki Kuhna and Robat Sangi-Ye in Herat province to the border of Turkmenistan. In Baghdis, pistachio forests cover most of Ab Kamari, Muqur, and Qadis districts.
Badghis residents said that 400 to 800 gr of roasted pistachio could once be sold for ten US dollars. Now, due to ongoing shortages, the same amount cost 20 dollars.
Afghanistan’s forests were seen as such a precious natural resource that, before the communist coup of 1978, a special military unit called the Kandak Sabz (Green Battalion), was tasked with protecting them. There are now calls for similar measures to be put in place.
Hafizullah, a former head of the provincial department of agriculture, said that the lack of rule of law and ongoing fighting had made it easy for the insurgents to divert the revenue of the pistachio forests.
“The best way for the government to take control of the forests is to deploy an armed and properly-equipped military unit to do so, and the government needs to take practical steps towards this,” Hafizullah said.
Abdul Raziq Darwishi, head of the provincial independent land authority, agreed that state-owned land was being exploited by armed groups acting with impunity.
Local gangs, strongmen and the Taliban now controlled almost 80 per cent of the province’s pistachio forests and grassland, he continued, adding, “Only 40,968 hectares of land have been retaken.”
Darwishi said that out of 90,000 hectares of grassland, less than 20 per cent was under the control of the government.
Afghanistan’s so-called Forest Law explicitly states that buying or selling public land as well as cutting down trees are criminal offences. Penalties range from fines to lengthy prison sentences.
Although Irfan said that they had reported 900 people to the police over the last two years, security officials said that only 12 people had been arrested, in late 2017.
Badghis deputy police chief Ghulam Sarwar Haidari said, “In 2017, we received 48 complaints from the department of agriculture, of which 12 perpetrators were arrested in Ab Kamari and Muqur districts on charges of cutting down pistachio trees and harvesting pistachio out of season.
“However, due to a lack of security and the fact that the armed opposition controls the forest, we have not been able to apprehend any others.”
Ahmad Jan Azizi, director of the Badghis appellate attorney’s office, said that he was aware of only two cases of land usurpation between 2014 and 2017.
He said that the perpetrators in the first case had been sentenced to six months imprisonment, and the second resolved after the private lands were returned to their original owners.
Others deny that the insurgents have won control over the Baghdis forests.
Sharafuddin Majidi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said, “The absolute majority of pistachio lands is governed by the state or are under the control of the government.”
But he did concede that, during the harvest season, the Taliban presence in the forest increased, and that they siphoned off much of the pistachio revenue each year. Majidi said that measures planned for the coming year including recruiting more security guards, retaking expropriated land and planting new trees.
Last April, the US military set out to take on the Islamic State in Afghanistan. At the time, officials estimated the group had about 700 fighters in the country. The US forces seemed confident they could extinguish the Islamist militants.
The United States targeted the fighters with the “mother of all bombs,” which was dropped on caves in Afghanistan last spring. By June, the US military said it had killed Abu Sayed, the head of Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate, in an airstrike. A Pentagon spokeswoman predicted that the strike would “significantly disrupt the terror group’s plans to expand its presence in Afghanistan.”
That hasn't come to pass.
In the months since, the terrorist organization has launched several high-profile attacks in Kabul and beyond. In December, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a Shiite cultural center that killed 41 people. That month, Islamic State attackers stormed two different Afghanistan intelligence service locations in a week. In January, a handful of gunmen claiming to be members of the Islamic State held up a Save the Children office in Jalalabad, killing four people in an hours-long siege.
And Wednesday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives near a major Shiite shrine in Kabul, killing dozens during celebrations of the Persian new year.
No one thinks the Islamic State is as powerful as the Taliban or that it might take control of significant swaths of Afghanistan as it once did in Iraq and Syria. But the group, also known as ISIS, still has the potential to wreak plenty of havoc. Here's a look at how the Islamic State won a foothold in Afghanistan, what it wants and whether it's succeeding.
How long has the Islamic State been in Afghanistan?
It’s hard to say, but US officials started to hear rumors about the group operating in Afghanistan around 2014.
James Cunningham, who was the US ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, told Frontline that the group was using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a recruiting ground, trying to find fighters who would travel to Syria and Iraq.
But the Islamic State's high profile attracted dissatisfied members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who were eager for a rebrand. They were drawn to the Islamic State, journalist AnandGopal told Frontline in 2015, because of the attention it was getting in the media: “There’s been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves.”
It's not clear that there was ever much communication between the Islamic State in Afghanistan and key leaders in Syria and Iraq. The Afghanistan branch was more like a franchise, operating largely independently. “They embrace the label, and they swear allegiance to Baghdadi, but it doesn’t appear there is any direction, control or instructions coming from Syria, Iraq or Baghdadi,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Frontline. She referred to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
What does the Islamic State in Afghanistan look like today?
It's hard to say exactly how many Islamic State fighters are in Afghanistan right now, but it seems their numbers have grown. Last March, the US military estimated that about 700 ISIS fighters were in Afghanistan. By November, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan said that US forces had killed more than 1,600 fighters on the battlefield. “It’s like a balloon,” he said. “We squeeze them in this area, and they’ll try to move out elsewhere.”
Michael Kugelman, a deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, has called the group’s resilience “quite worrying.” Its fighters' strength, he said, lies in their ability to navigate Afghanistan’s challenging terrain with ease, which allows them to evade strikes. The group is also aided by “a steady supply of recruits” from disaffected members of the Pakistani Taliban as well as radicalized Afghans.
The group operates mostly in the Nangahar province, near the border of Pakistan.
What is the Islamic State’s relationship to groups such as the Taliban?
Tense. For one thing, the groups have different ideologies and goals. As AkhileshPillalamarri put it in the Diplomat, “the hostility that ISIS bears toward the Taliban stems from the fact that the Taliban draws its legitimacy not from a universal Islamic creed, but from a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base. In other words, while ISIS fights to establish a Caliphate encompassing the entire ummah (Muslim community), the Taliban merely seeks to establish an Afghan state that they claim is ruled by Islamic Law.”
The groups are also in competition for members and resources. Both rely, to some extent, on money from the heroin trade to fund their operations. As Frontline put it, “the fiercest fighting has not been between ISIS and the government security forces, but between ISIS and the Taliban.”
That has created a deadly feedback loop that may at least partially explain the recent spate of attacks around Kabul. As Emily Winterbotham, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, explained to Vice, when one group pulls off a particularly spectacular attack, the others might feel as if they need to one-up the competition.
“In terms of the Taliban, this could be a strategic attempt to demonstrate their continued strength in Afghanistan through high-profile attacks, whether in order to test the strength of the Afghan government, or in an attempt to ‘outbid' their competitors, most notably (ISIS)," she said.
Will the newest US surge in Afghanistan have any impact on the Islamic State?
As Winterbotham pointed out, violence in Afghanistan has continued to increase even as the United States has sent in more troops. In fact, violent groups have cited the increased presence of Americans as one of the motivations for their attacks. “It is worth noting that violence in Afghanistan actually increased hand-in-hand with increased foreign troop presence, even at the height of the surge,” she told Vice. “Military action failed to beat the Taliban then; there is no reason to think that it will work now.”
Haroun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul, also predicts that President Trump's surge will lead to a jump in insurgent violence by the Taliban and the Islamic State. That's what happened when President Barack Obama carried out a much larger surge in 2009. “Instead of confronting NATO forces on the battlefield they opted for these low-cost terrorist attacks,” he said, “and they have been very effective.”
The White House’s revolving door never stops spinning. Rex Tillerson’s ouster marks the latest, but certainly not the last, case of a top US official being sent packing.
Tillerson’s likely replacement is Mike Pompeo, who had been CIA director. With a spymaster — particularly one who strongly believes in an assertive CIA — expected to become America’s top diplomat, the Trump administration has once again demonstrated its desire to securitize US foreign policy. Pompeo’s arrival at Foggy Bottom would have major implications for the world, and particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region: One of the world’s most volatile areas, and home to a long and oft-forgotten American war.
Up to now, the Trump White House’s policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have largely been security-focused. Its strategy in Pakistan revolves around compelling Islamabad to crack down on terrorists on its soil which threaten US troops in Afghanistan. While Washington continues to oversee a development assistance program in Pakistan, the administration has put most non-security initiatives on the backburner until it believes the terrorism problem has been properly addressed.
Meanwhile, the administration’s Afghanistan strategy is essentially a military strategy. It calls for US troops, working closely with Afghan security forces, to intensify battlefield pressure on Taliban fighters until they agree to participate in peace talks to end the war. The White House has not announced any accompanying diplomatic strategy to help shore up a weak and divided Afghan government; or, for that matter, to help develop a broader plan for reconciliation with a Taliban insurgency that the administration, including most recently Defense Secretary James Mattis, admits cannot be defeated militarily.
Since Pompeo enjoys a much better relationship with President Donald Trump than Tillerson did, there’s good reason to believe the new secretary of state will have as much influence on policy at state as he did at Langley. Pompeo’s recent track record suggests he will not only wholeheartedly support a security-focused approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but will also call for this approach to be scaled up.
Nominee for secretary of state’s recent track record suggests he will not only wholeheartedly support a security-focused approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but will also call for this approach to be scaled up.
While at the CIA, Pompeo oversaw a shift in policy that entailed the CIA taking a more active role in tracking down the Taliban. He is also a staunch supporter of drone strikes — long a US covert tactic of choice in Pakistan — and has asked for more authorization to use them. There’s little reason to believe he would oppose their expanded use in Pakistan — a measure the administration has already considered adapting — to target senior Afghanistan-focused militants that Islamabad doesn’t take out itself.
There are several implications from all this. First, with America’s top diplomat endorsing highly undiplomatic measures in Pakistan — mainly expanded drone strikes but also, perhaps, the use of unilateral raids — the tense US-Pakistan relationship could face new tests. For now, Washington appears to be holding off on taking coercive steps against Pakistan: A policy of caution rooted in the fear that harsh measures could provoke Islamabad to shut down military supply routes on its soil, which would be a big blow to US war efforts in Afghanistan. However, if Pompeo continues to have Trump’s ear, and if — as rumored — more moderating administration voices on South Asia policy, such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are replaced with hardliners, the calculus could change.
Second, prospects for Taliban reconciliation in Afghanistan could grow ever more remote. While Pompeo supports reconciliation, his preference, much like the administration’s on the whole, is to fight now and talk later. The idea of Pompeo authorizing the State Department to craft a comprehensive plan to help Kabul launch a reconciliation process sounds rather far-fetched, even though, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani having recently made a highly generous peace overture to the Taliban, there’s never been a better time for US diplomats to be fashioning such a plan.
Instead, Pompeo will likely hope that a punishing military campaign — supported by robust CIA efforts — will compel the Taliban to give up a fight that up to now it has remained steadfastly committed to waging.
One might contend that, if the White House enjoys an inter-agency consensus on Afghanistan policy, with state, the Pentagon and the CIA all fully on board with intensifying the battlefield fight, then strong will and capacity can lead to success. The problem, of course, is that the same consensus was present during the height of the troop surge, when more than 100,000 American soldiers were deployed to put the Taliban on the defensive — and failed. With fewer than 15,000 troops on the ground today, the mission will be even more difficult.
In effect, Pompeo’s arrival at the state department could exacerbate two of Washington’s biggest challenges in South Asia: Improving its relationship with Pakistan, and finding ways to bring a never-ending war in Afghanistan to a desperately needed close.
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.