Updated at 1:38 p.m. ET
Two stories from Afghanistan this week were emblematic of how the conflict there has proceeded since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001. The first was that 14 people were killed in a suicide attack, claimed by ISIS, in Kabul that narrowly missed the country’s vice president. And the second was that Taliban fighters seized two districts in Paktika province, which is on the country’s southeastern border with Pakistan. What those stories obscure, however, is the optimism about the prospects of peace in a country that has seen little of it in recent years.
This month, the Trump administration reportedly ordered its diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban. That news report came just days after General John Nicholson, the head of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, said the United States was “ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces.” The militant group maintains that the Afghan government is illegitimate and that it will talk only to the U.S. It also insists on a withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country as part of any reconciliation process in Afghanistan. The Taliban has not dismissed the reported offer—but noted it was awaiting a formal offer from the U.S.
Graeme Smith, an author and consultant for the International Crisis Group, said in an email that “senior officials in the Afghan government are saying the whole thing is their idea.”
“They expressed frustration with the slow pace of peace-making in recent years and said they asked the U.S. speak with the Taliban and break the ice,” he said.
The U.S. State Department said the U.S. policy in Afghanistan hadn’t changed. The U.S. is “exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the government of Afghanistan,” said Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman. “Any peace and reconciliation talks have to be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned. We stand by that position, and that is something that we’ve not backed away from.”
But on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Alice Wells, the senior-most U.S. official for South and Central Asia, led a U.S. delegation this week to meet with Taliban officials in Qatar. A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that Wells met with senior Qatari officials “to discuss recent progress towards an Afghan-owned, and Afghan-led peace process.”
“We do not have any other meetings to read out at this time,” the spokesperson said, but added the U.S. is “exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government. Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government.”
Laurel Miller, who until June 2017 was the acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, told me that if such an offer were made, the Taliban would probably accept it. “It would reinforce their ability to project themselves as a legitimate political player,” said Miller, who is now a senior foreign-policy expert at the Rand Corporation, “and at the same time, would potentially, depending on how the talks were conducted, undercut the appearance of legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
The reported U.S. offer of direct talks with the Taliban comes on the heels of the Afghan government’s own unprecedented overtures toward the militant group. In February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered the group unconditional talks; and last month, he offered the Taliban an unconditional cease-fire to coincide with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. If that offer was a surprise, the Taliban’s response to it was a shock: It accepted the offer and ordered its fighters to lay down their weapons for three days. The effectiveness of the truce—as well as the resumption of the fighting after Eid—signaled just how much control the Taliban has over its fighters and the Afghan government over its forces. Not only that, the scenes of public celebrations, Taliban fighters embracing Afghan soldiers and taking selfies together, and a dramatic reduction in bloodshed during those three days showed just how tired everyone in Afghanistan, including those engaged in the fighting, is of their nearly two-decade-long conflict. The Taliban, which is now publicly seeing that the public it claims to represent supports a reconciliation process, has even ordered a halt on attacking civilian targets. The reports of the U.S. offer of direct talks have also strengthened the optimism in the country.
“People are saying, ‘Finally, the Americans are serious about peace,’” Smith said in the email. “There is some anxiety as well, because nobody wants the U.S. to pull out abruptly and ignite another round of civil wars. But there is a lot of optimism after the recent cease-fire.”
The developments come almost a year after President Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy, a plan intended to bring peace to Afghanistan while simultaneously putting pressure on Pakistan, which is believed to have some influence over the Taliban. As part of Trump’s strategy, the U.S. moved from an approach that emphasized withdrawing from Afghanistan by a certain date to one in which the U.S. would remain in the country until the Afghan government takes full control of its territory, a process that has been slow, at best. By most accounts, the military conflict in Afghanistan is at a stalemate. As long as the U.S. remains in the country, that is unlikely to change.
Johnny Walsh, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute for Peace, said, “The most important thing that has happened in the year since the South Asia strategy is the sudden burst of movement on the peace process.”
“We could debate what has or has not happened on the battlefield during that year … but the prospects for peace, interest in peace, is vastly increased from where it was 12 months ago,” he told me.
The effectiveness of Trump’s strategy does not take away from the fact that past optimism about Afghanistan has given way to a bitter reality. Smith pointed out that there have been informal conversations involving the U.S. and the Taliban since the presidency of George W. Bush. During the Obama years, the U.S. held direct talks with the Taliban, but those talks ended as divisions among the militants over the strategy became apparent. The Obama administration’s relationship with Hamid Karzai, who was the Afghan president at the time, was also complicated. It might be the same this time, as well. There is distrust among the parties as well as skepticism within them. Any high-profile Taliban attack in Kabul would almost certainly derail a nascent peace process. Smith said that hard-liners on both sides are resisting the idea of talks.
“Some people said the [Eid] cease-fire would never work, because the Taliban would exploit the truce to launch surprise attacks. They were even warning of a ‘Taliban Tet Offensive.’ Nothing like that happened, but it shows you the level of mistrust among urban elites,” he said. “Some insurgent leaders feel the same way, worrying that years of sacrifice will be for nothing if they don’t achieve their goals of expelling the foreigners and returning to a more Islamic system.”
Additionally, Pakistan is keen on any political resolution in Afghanistan protecting its own interests. Finally, while the Taliban is more than happy to talk to the U.S. directly, it is less clear that it is willing to engage in a dialogue with the Afghan government. If that resistance continues, then current efforts at peace may suffer the fate of previous ones.
But there are reasons for optimism, too. The Trump administration’s efforts have a key goal: to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Taliban sees talks with the U.S. as a path to political legitimacy. The Afghan government wants a reconciliation process.
“My interpretation is that the Afghan government sees potential value in a U.S.-Taliban channel with at least two conditions: That it’s coordinated very closely with Kabul and with a great deal of transparency about what’s discussed,” Walsh, who previously served at the State Department as the lead adviser on the Afghan peace process, told me. “And, second, no talks are going to delve into the political future of Afghanistan without the appropriate Afghan representatives in the room.” He said there is no deal the U.S. could make with the Taliban without “a meaningful agreement between the actual stakeholders who have to live with it, and those are Afghans.”
Miller, the former acting special representative, told me the U.S. should formally put forward substantive ideas that show it is serious about issues that are important to all sides—the United States, the Afghan government and its allies, and the Taliban.
“That’s the only way to proceed in a peace process—to include as topics of discussion the interests and demands of all the parties … That doesn’t mean you give anything away at the outset,” she said. “It just means that you demonstrate good faith in your willingness to negotiate not only your own interests and demands but those of the other side.”