Speaking Thursday at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Lisa Curtis, who is senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, said Ghani’s offer was a “clear demonstration of the Afghan government’s desire for a genuine peace process.” She said she hoped the Taliban would accept the offer and cease attacks, adding that if the group didn’t match Ghani’s announcement with its own ceasefire, it would demonstrate “which party bears primary responsibility … for perpetuating this” war.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of peace. For one, as Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan army general, told Reuters, the ceasefire would give the Taliban an opportunity to regroup; attacks by the Taliban typically intensify during Ramadan. Secondly, Ghani’s offer of unconditional talks with the Taliban, with a path toward the group’s political rehabilitation, was widely seen as a bold move by the Afghan government. But the Taliban itself was circumspect about publicly reacting to it—though Nicholson said last week that the group had engaged in secret talks with the Afghan government in Pakistan, an assertion the Taliban denied. Perhaps most importantly, however, the Taliban says it views the Afghan government as illegitimate and as a Western puppet, and will talk only with the U.S., whose invasion of the country in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 resulted in the Taliban’s ouster. And, the group has noted, the military force that is doing the most damage to its fighters is not the Afghan government’s, but the U.S.-led NATO forces. Hence the importance of Nicholson’s assurance that U.S. forces will abide by the ceasefire.
Barnett Rubin, who is an expert on the region at NYU, called Ghani’s offer serious, but added on Twitter: “From the Taliban point of view, he is asking for a ceasefire while the US is still ‘occupying’ Afghanistan, so it is hard for them to accept, but they may come under pressure from both people and Pakistan to observe.” Or as Laurel Miller, who served as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, said Thursday at USIP: “To claim that ending the war predominantly requires Afghans talking to Afghans, without discussing a U.S. withdrawal … flies in the face of reality.”
The conflict in Afghanistan is at something of an impasse. About 65 percent of the Afghan population lives under the government’s control while about 12 percent lives under Taliban rule, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general. The rest lives in areas that are contested. But the U.S. military’s support of Afghan forces means the Taliban can never truly achieve a military victory in the country—even if it retains the ability to carry out attacks, seemingly at will, on the heart of the Afghan state. The Taliban might want to try and wait it out—after all, President Trump hasn’t hidden his frustration about the 17-year-long presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan—but there is little indication that the 14,000 U.S. troops in the country will leave any time before a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.