The Taliban appear to have rejected the bold proposal by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to invite them for direct peace talks with the government. In an unsigned commentary published last week on their official website, the Taliban said, “The permission of peace and war are with the Americans ….” and claimed that their policy of wanting to “talk to American invaders about peace and stability rather than talking to their slave regime is now widely accepted by the independent Western analysts and other intellectuals.”
Instead of dealing with the Kabul government, the Taliban want to talk to the United States, which they see as the decisive actor on the battlefield. Even with the United States’ diminished direct combat role since 2015, American airstrikes and operations by American special forces pose the gravest danger to the Taliban.
Over years of interviews with Taliban fighters and leadership I have found that the narrative of the United States being the primary enemy unites them. In recent weeks, the Taliban too have called for peace talks but only with the United States.
Mr. Ghani’s proposal and his speech did not mention the potential withdrawal of American and other foreign forces from Afghanistan, which is a core demand of the Taliban. A declaration signed by the participants at the Kabul Process meeting on Feb. 28, at which Mr. Ghani made his offer, hinted at the possibility of discussing such a withdrawal. The Taliban leaders turned out to be skeptical of a proposal that did not address the issue up front.
The Taliban’s determination to talk to the United States is reinforced by their sense that ruling elites in Kabul are unwilling to negotiate a political settlement and unable to deliver on the group’s primary demands. The Taliban see the perpetuation of the war, which guarantees continued Western military and financial support to Afghanistan, as serving the interests of the ruling elites more than a political agreement that would force them to share power. Taliban leaders also believe that the decision to withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan does not rest with the Afghan government.
It does not help that Mr. Ghani’s coalition government has been rocked by infighting and faces challenges from a widening circle of opposition politicians. The Taliban leaders see the government as simply one of the numerous Afghan factions they would have to deal with as part of a broader reconciliation process.
The Taliban’s longstanding and obstinate rejection of direct talks with the Afghan government is an obstacle to a peace process. On this question, the group has shown little of the pragmatism needed to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Yet the Taliban leaders remain open to peace talks offered by the United States. In February, they released an open letter to the American public that requested direct talks.
Peace talks are urgently needed but remain stalled by the mistrust among the parties to the conflict. The Taliban leaders I have spoken to do not appear to recognize vital security interests of the United States — foremost, the threat from transnational jihadist groups operating in and around Afghanistan. Instead, they believe that the American presence is driven by geostrategic and economic objectives. Meanwhile, some American and Afghan officials believe that the Taliban seek to monopolize power, revive the Islamic Emirate that they established in Afghanistan in the 1990s and potentially allow safe havens for groups like Al Qaeda.
Among the Taliban, as in the government, there are elements who believe that if they retain external support, they can win militarily. Yet a majority of the top Taliban leaders acknowledge that such a military victory is impossible. Most also recognize that any government emerging from a peace process could not replicate the Islamic Emirate.
As mistrust abides, all parties to the conflict seem inclined to escalate military campaigns in the hopes of forcing their rivals to negotiate on more acceptable terms. The principal challenge is to get them to talk.
Peace talks are unlikely to start without the United States taking the lead (supported by international participation) and without the Taliban leadership showing greater flexibility.
Washington’s skepticism regarding the intentions of the Taliban, its reluctance to engage directly with them and its fear that doing so would undercut the Afghan government in Kabul are understandable.
Afghan governments object to foreign governments talking to or engaging with the Taliban without coordinating with Kabul and have sought to block such attempts. If the United States talked to the Taliban, it would most likely be in consultation with the Afghan government.
But the claims by the United States that it is not a party to the conflict don’t hold in the face of its military involvement. The central role the United States plays in the war, which President Ghani himself acknowledges, means that the Trump administration needs to take a correspondingly prominent role in negotiations.
The United States has to put the issue of troop withdrawal on the table. It wouldn’t involve pledging to withdraw forces — a timeline and details of troop withdrawal would have to be agreed upon as part of a political settlement, not beforehand, not in isolation. The Taliban would have to accept that discussions of a foreign troop drawdown would take place alongside discussions involving the Afghan government of other aspects of a deal.
And when there is a settlement, it would not be unthinkable for the Taliban to accept some American presence or support to help contain potential insurgent splinter groups and the Islamic State militants who reject the peace process. In private, Taliban leaders have suggested they might need international support during the transition to help stabilize the country economically and politically.
Talks among Afghan parties would signal only the beginning of a long and difficult process toward a political settlement. The interests and stakes of regional and other international actors would have to be addressed. Pakistan, which has long sheltered the Taliban leadership, would probably have to acquiesce to initial talks and use its leverage over the Taliban leadership to get them to join such talks.
Whatever the precise order and form the negotiations take, the United States and the Taliban need to work a way around the principal stumbling block: the Taliban’s reluctance to speak to the Afghan government and the United States’ unwillingness to recognize itself as a conflict party and put the issue of troop withdrawal on the table. Without a compromise by both sides, it is hard to see the start of meaningful dialogue.