Is it time for optimism in Afghanistan?
On February 28, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban peace talks without preconditions as a way to end the nearly two-decade-long conflict in his country. A month later, as delegates from more than 20 countries gathered in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to discuss ways to restore stability to Afghanistan, there still hasn’t been a formal response from the Taliban. Officials, meanwhile, have held out hope that the absence of a reply is cause for optimism. “[W]e have not seen them reject the proposal, which … is in itself a positive sign,” Alice Wells, the U.S. State Department official who oversees South and Central Asia, said earlier this month at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “And I would underscore our hope and expectation that the Taliban leadership will analyze the proposal seriously and carefully.”
Ghani’s unprecedented overture to the Taliban includes the offer of talks without preconditions. It would also allow its members to run for government, release Taliban fighters from prison, and require foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. The Taliban, who ruled the country until the U.S.-led invasion in retaliation for the attacks of September 11, 2001 (which was conceived and executed by al-Qaeda, a group granted refuge in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime), is reportedly considering the offer. That has not prevented it from carrying out attacks across the country—nor does it mean its leaders will accept the proposal.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region at NYU, told me that Ghani’s offer is significant in that it addresses many of the Taliban’s major concerns. But, he said, it doesn’t address its main concern: its belief that Ghani lacks the legitimacy to make such an offer. “The Afghan Taliban were not overthrown by the Afghan government. They were overthrown by the United States,” Rubin said. “And they want to talk to the United States. If they talk to the Afghan government, to them, it’s like surrendering—because, to them, it means that it was legitimate to overthrow them.”
And yet, as The New York Times reported Tuesday, the mood at the Tashkent conference, the latest international effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, was “unusually optimistic.” Ghani’s offer to the Taliban came at a similar conference in Kabul bringing together 20 countries. There are also several other mechanisms in place working towards peace in Afghanistan; many involve a combination of its neighbors and either the United States or Russia. Most, but not all, include the Afghan government. None include the Taliban.
After years of criticizing America’s war in Afghanistan, President Trump followed his two predecessors by sending U.S. soldiers to the country. His South Asia strategy involved pressuring Pakistan, which he accused of giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt,” by suspending security assistance to Islamabad. He also wants India to do more. As part of this effort, the U.S. is helping Afghan forces fight the Taliban “in order to drive them to the negotiating table.”
The Taliban remains the most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan. Its membership is Afghan (unlike the other groups, whose ranks include many foreign fighters), it enjoys some support among the population, and controls about one-third of the country—more territory than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. (The Afghan government controls all the major population centers.)
What all these international efforts underscore is that while the international community wants a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, many global powers who have meddled in the country for decades—if not centuries—still influence what happens within its borders. U.S. Army General John Nicholson, the senior-most U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the BBC last week that weapons seized from Taliban fighters were allegedly supplied by Russia. (Russia, whose painful history in Afghanistan dates back to the 19th century, has denied this.) Russia is reportedly backing the Taliban in order to fight the Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in the country. Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s national-security adviser, said last week in Washington that Kabul disagreed with Moscow’s distinction “between good and bad terrorists.”
“Of course, we’ve been provided assurance that [the] Taliban will not be provided with weapons and resources,” he said. “We will welcome that assurance and we would like to see that in practice.”
Afghanistan’s other neighbors have their own interests—interests that are often at odds with one another, as well as with the Afghan government. Pakistan, the Taliban’s ally and major benefactor, is afraid of being hemmed in between two unfriendly neighbors, India and Afghanistan. India, in turn, is nervous about the prospect of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan because they provide a semblance of stability to the region. Iran, which borders Afghanistan in the west, is also supporting the Taliban. China sees stability in the country as a major necessity if the belt-and-road initiative, its massive infrastructure project, is to succeed. China is also nervous about the presence of Uighur separatists inside Afghanistan; ditto for Uzbekistan, which is battling its own Islamist militancy.
Atmar said the number of foreign fighters had increased in the country, as the number of international forces fell over the past four years. The government’s goal, he said, was to “separate the Afghan Taliban from the foreign fighters. And we can make peace with them because they are Afghans—if they are interested in peace.”
If the Taliban accepted Ghani’s offer of talks (a big if), it would mark the first time since 2010 that the group’s leadership met with Afghan government officials. That earlier attempt failed after Pakistan played spoiler by arresting a key member of the Taliban leadership. Subsequent efforts faltered as well. Hamid Karzai, the previous Afghan president, tried in 2014 to talk secretly to the Taliban, but the Obama administration blocked his attempts. Karzai himself had opposed previous U.S. attempts to negotiate with the insurgents. The U.S. role in Afghanistan itself has changed since 2001. At the height of the war on terrorism, there were about 100,000 U.S. troops in the country. Today, that figure is down to about 15,000 troops who work with the Afghan military to fight the Taliban and international terrorist groups, including ISIS.
Atmar, the Afghan national-security adviser, cast doubt over whether the Taliban were still monolithic, arguing that because it lacks the strong leadership it once had, it is brought together by foreign influence. “There are leaders now among the Taliban … that question the continuation of the conflict,” he said. “And they are certainly in contact with our peace council and with the government, and they are asking for a process whereby they and their families are protected to engage in peace.” But, he said, there are also elements that are irreconcilable. The Afghan government, he said, would engage with one group and fight the other.
But Rubin, who previously worked as a U.S. diplomat and talked to the Taliban, said the militants are less fragmented than they are perceived to be. “There’s a stereotype about the Taliban that they’re a bunch of fractious tribesmen, but it’s not true,” he said. “They do speak with one voice. In fact, they are much more consistent in their policy positions than either the U.S. or Afghan governments.”