In a significant departure from the United States policy on Afghanistan so far, President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered its diplomats to explore the option of opening direct talks with the Afghan Taliban.
This is also a major concession to the insurgent group that has long sought to talk directly with Washington, refusing to sit down with U.S.-propped governments in Kabul.
Consider what it means.
First, it is an acknowledgement, though tacit, that the policy unveiled last year has not worked. The policy, which came at the end of a seven-month review process, sought to send in more troops and give field commanders carte blanche in using force as they deemed fit and in appreciation of the ground situation.
Interestingly, however, the main architect and pusher of the policy was Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser and then a serving general. Trump himself, while unveiling the salient features of that policy at Fort Myer, said that he was instinctually opposed to staying on in Afghanistan: “My original instinct was to pull out—and, historically, I like following my instincts.”
McMaster resigned as NSA in March 2018.
Second, the policy that preferred use of force to dialogue has, by all accounts, not worked. As The New York Times, which broke the story, noted: “The [Afghan] government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and the Taliban 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested, according the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which was created by Congress to monitor progress in the country.”
During a visit to Kabul in early December last year, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the actors in the Kabul government, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. They painted an optimistic picture of the ground situation even as the Afghan media during my five-day stay was reporting to the contrary.
Third, on Feb. 28, as part of the Kabul Peace process, President Ashraf Ghani offered the olive branch to the Taliban, detailing the talks process without any preconditions. [for more detail of my take on that offer, see: http://jinnah-institute.org/take-one-beyond-the-kabul-process/]
The Taliban, normally quick with their answers, did not respond to the offer. In fact, so far there has been no direct response from them, though they did obliquely reject the offer by writing a letter to Barnett Rubin (Rubin had written to the Taliban after the group wrote an open letter to the American public), stressing, yet again, that they would only talk to the U.S.
This was expected because insurgencies, to add political value to their armed struggle, as also to retain their legitimacy, avoid talking to local actors propped up by an external, occupation force. They seek direct talks with the occupier.
Fourth, in addition to losing ground to the Taliban, there’s little appetite left in the U.S., as also in its allies for continuing to fund Kabul and throw good money after bad. In the 17 years that this war has dragged on, the country has built up few internal sources of revenue. From government coffers to the budget for Afghan National Security Forces to the media and even the NGOs, everyone has survived and continues to on U.S. and international largesse. Corruption, tribalism, ethnic bonds, nepotism et cetera add to the problems of streamlining the economy and the finances.
Equally, while the countryside remains much the same, the post-2002 elites in Kabul and a few other cities grow fat on foreign money. There’s no dearth of reports and analyses on government inefficiencies, infighting, and the irresponsible warlords of yesterday that joined up with the U.S.-led forces to oust the Taliban and have since raked it in.
Trump, who looks at diplomacy and relations more as business deals and doesn’t tire of telling the world that the U.S. has been shortchanged by everyone, including its NATO allies, is unlikely to keep filling the Afghan coffers. The issue is not whether he is right but that he is the president and has the constitutional and policy space to act in certain ways. As he said at Fort Myer: “I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”
Does this mean the 17-year-long conflict is about to end? No.
This is the opening hand by the Trump administration. The Taliban Qatar office has welcomed the move. Sohail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson said: “This is what we wanted and were waiting for, to sit with the U.S. directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.”
The biggest snag, however, would be the status of the Kabul government. The Taliban want to talk to the U.S. Would they accept the presence of the Kabul government’s rep at the table? This is not a mere technicality. It is a fundamental point not only for the Taliban but also for Ghani and his government.
Several peace initiatives during former president Hamid Karzai’s 10-year-rule faltered and fizzled out because (a) the Taliban wanted to speak as a parallel government, and (b) the Karzai government was fearful that the U.S. and its allies might do a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back.
That problem still obtains and would need some delicate diplomacy and an innovative solution to move the process further.
Secondly, at this stage, given the ground situation, the Taliban are likely to ratchet up the attacks. The Kabul government will retaliate. Corollary: diplomacy will have to move fast to curtail the duration of this violence by setting down some initial ground rules to be respected by all sides. There’s precedent of the Eid ceasefire, which worked well, though the Taliban refused to extend it beyond the three days of Eid.
The next Eid comes in or around the third week of August. It will be instructive to see if the warring sides agree to another ceasefire and whether the Taliban will be amenable to a longer cessation of violence this time.
The U.S. diplomacy has other states in the loop. Pakistan, it seems, is spending a lot of time straightening some of the kinks and has major stakes in the process for its own security. The likely gambit would be for the U.S. interlocutors to sit down with the Taliban and work out the basic parameters of the talks. Ghani’s offer is already on the table. It is comprehensive and reasonable and includes renegotiating the Constitution and the withdrawal of foreign forces.
The U.S. would do well to stick to the Ghani offer and work out some arrangement with the Taliban that would make them more amenable to Kabul’s inclusion—if at all. The process, by all reports, began a month ago. As The New York Times reported, “Over the past few weeks senior American officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for direct United States-Taliban talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, last week, and Alice G. Wells, the top diplomat for the region, spent several days holding talks with major players in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Taking it further would need all sides dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
That said, one approach is all but dead: the talks won’t be Afghan-led and -owned, not in the initial stages at least.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider