Talking to the Taliban While Still Fighting the Taliban

Nearly a year since the Trump administration rolled out its South Asia strategy, carnage in Afghanistan continues even as negotiations for peace inch ahead.

An Afghan soldier stands guard Wednesday next to damaged army vehicles after a Taliban attack in Ghazni, Afghanistan. (Mustafa Andalib / Reuters)

The latest headlines from Afghanistan are much like the old headlines from Afghanistan. This week, U.S.-backed Afghan troops forced the Taliban out of Ghazni city, only after dozens of people had already been killed by the militant group. Afghan forces could do little as Taliban fighters seized Camp Chinaya, a military outpost in the north, killing 17 soldiers. And on Wednesday, the militants killed more than 40 troops and policemen in Baghlan province, also in the north.

Taken individually, each development is an embarrassing defeat for the Afghan government and its Western supporters; taken together, the setbacks, especially the events in Ghazni, challenge the U.S. and Afghan government’s narrative of progress in the conflict. “The Taliban was able to mass, plan, and execute an offensive under the noses of the Afghan government, military, police, as well as [NATO’s] Resolute Support. They did this undetected,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me. “Even if the Taliban is not able to take control of the city, or hold it … they’ve really struck a blow to the Afghan government and Afghan security forces, and Resolute Support as well.”

After five days of fighting, Afghan forces, with U.S. support, eventually pushed the Taliban out of Ghazni on Tuesday. But the group’s performance on the battlefield, where it also seized control of several districts in Ghazni province, was, Roggio said, reminiscent of 2015, when its fighters seized the northern city of Kunduz. Although the Taliban controls large parts of rural Afghanistan, Kunduz was the first time the militants had captured a major Afghan city since they were driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Victories have been all too common since 2015 for the militants, who have shown an uncanny ability to strike almost at will across Afghanistan.

What the Taliban hasn’t managed to do is hold that territory for any meaningful length of time—almost certainly because of the U.S. military support for the Afghan government and its forces. About 15,000 U.S. military personnel are still in Afghanistan serving in advisory roles. That’s significantly less than the 100,000 who were in the country in 2010, at the height of the U.S. presence, but more than enough to wear down the Taliban. Indeed, if there is a consensus over what is happening in Afghanistan, it is that as long as the United States remains in the country, the Taliban cannot win. “The Taliban will have made the point they sought to make,” Johnny Walsh, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, told me about the fighting in Ghazni. “The tragedy of it is that so many people died or were wounded for an incident that ultimately is not likely at all to move the needle in the larger military conflict.”

The militants certainly recognize this: In June, they declared a three-day cease-fire to mark Eid, which coincided with a similar truce called by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Recent news reports have suggested Ghani may order another cease-fire; the Taliban is reportedly considering reciprocating once again. “Both sides understand the principle of fight and talk,” Walsh said. “And whenever there were moments of hope in the peace process in the past, they have often coincided with moments of extreme violence on the ground in Afghanistan because there’s very much still a war going on. And that can very much go in either direction.”

Walsh said the danger is that the Taliban’s battlefield gains in Ghazni might embolden some hard-liners in the movement to think they can win the war after all, and compel them to say that peace talks are not necessary or to take an unrealistically hard line in talks. “That would be a misguided assumption, in my view,” he said. As I wrote last month, part of the reason for this is that the United States also recognizes that the Taliban cannot be fully defeated and so has made significant diplomatic overtures to the militants, combined with increased military pressure.

That recognition is a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, which the president unveiled nearly a year ago. It envisioned bringing peace to Afghanistan by pushing the Taliban into dialogue with the Afghan government while simultaneously bombing it. At the same time, the strategy called for increased pressure on Pakistan, which is believed to have some influence over the Taliban. Under Donald Trump’s approach, the United States said it would remain in the country until the Afghan government takes full control of its territory. That could take some time. According to the most recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Afghan government controls about 65 percent of the country’s districts and the Taliban controls 12 percent (the rest are contested). These numbers are unlikely to change under the Trump administration’s strategy, as The New York Times reported last month. The United States is urging Afghan troops to withdraw from sparsely populated areas and focus, instead, on protecting cities.

The developments in Ghazni, Camp Chinaya, and Baghlan province are likely to heighten concerns in Washington about the efficacy of the Afghan government and its troops—and, indeed, of U.S. strategy. But as part of his South Asia strategy, Trump also ordered direct talks with the Taliban—a prospect too tempting to reject. The militants maintain they will talk only to the United States and not to the Afghan government. To that end, they attended talks in Qatar with Alice Wells, the senior-most State Department official overseeing the region. That meeting was said to be a prelude to direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As a State Department spokesperson said at the time: “Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government.”  

The fighting didn’t stop amid these talks. The Taliban seized two districts in Paktika province, which is on the country’s southeastern border with Pakistan. And in the period since, U.S. airstrikes have killed more 220 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. What’s important, Walsh said, is that in the year since Trump’s South Asia–strategy speech, there has been no major strategic shift on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but there have been early steps forward on peace, including the cease-fire in June. “If policy makers in Washington are evaluating where the real opportunities are that have emerged over the life span of the South Asia strategy, it would be hard not to focus on this opening of serious political talk that to some extent the Taliban seem to be exploring,” he said.

But talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, even if they begin, will at first be merely exploratory. The dialogue—after 17 years of U.S. military presence and billions of U.S. dollars spent on building Afghanistan’s civic institutions, propping up its successive governments, and training the Afghan National Army—is unlikely to produce results in the first weeks or even months. Any process that leads to the Taliban’s absorption into the Afghan political process, while accounting for its fighters and weapons, will likely take years—a period that will see heightened fighting as each side jostles for primacy in the talks. And in such an internecine conflict, U.S. military involvement will almost certainly be required, because, as Roggio put it, “the U.S. is the only thing that is propping the Afghan government and military up.”

“Until the Afghan military develops a will to fight just like the Taliban, we’re going to see security continue to deteriorate,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘The Taliban is tired. That’s why they want to talk.’ I don’t see it. I see a tired Afghan government, a tired Afghan military, and a tired NATO that just wants this war to end.”