Is peace on the horizon for Afghanistan?
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.