“It’s clear that people are daring to hope [that] a peace process could go somewhere — to a greater degree than it has in many years,” said one expert.
The United States has restarted conversations with the Taliban, the hardline Islamist group that America and NATO set out to dislodge more than 16 years ago. It’s part of the Trump administration’s effort to end America’s longest war, which has killed around 2,400 Americans and more than 30,000 Afghan civilians.
It’s still unclear if the new talks will lead to a political resolution; one expert I spoke to put the chances of success at around 20 percent. But others see it as an ambitious and bold move that could potentially lead to some kind of tenuous peace for the country. And the reason for this renewed optimism, surprisingly, has to do with the Taliban itself.
The organization remains one of the most brutal and religiously conservative insurgent groups in the world. But in recent years, it has shown signs of moderate but important change, like adhering to its first ceasefire with Afghan forces in June, and even allowing women and minorities to play a larger role in the organization.
The latest push for talks between the US and the Taliban also stems from the reality on the ground. The Taliban, along with other insurgent groups, keep gaining control or influence over territory and people in Afghanistan. The US-backed Afghan government and troops, meanwhile, continue to lose ground. So any end to the conflict would require Washington and Kabul to strike some accord with the Taliban, although the insurgent group currently only wants to talk to the US first to ensure it leaves Afghanistan.
Experts disagree on whether or not to trust the Taliban as a good-faith negotiator. Still, some in Washington and Kabul consider talking to the Taliban the best and most viable option after nearly two decades of fighting.
“It’s clear that people are daring to hope [that] a peace process could go somewhere — to a greater degree than it has in many years,” Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan expert at the US Institute of Peace, told me.
The Taliban has made quite the comeback
The Taliban is a highly conservative insurgent group that has played a major part in Afghanistan’s recent history.
The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and by 1998 controlled around 90 percent of the country. It imposed its strict interpretation of Islamic law on Afghanistan: Men had to grow long beards, women were forced to cover themselves completely, and people were prohibited from watching movies or listening to music. Punishments for various crimes sometimes included public executions or amputations.
The group started to really matter to the United States after September 11, 2001. The US suspected the Taliban of harboring Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11 attack, and his terrorist group, al-Qaeda. Less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the US invaded Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power.
The Taliban quickly lost control of Afghanistan and retreated into neighboring Pakistan, where it has since regrouped. Now, nearly 17 later, the Taliban is the most formidable insurgency fighting the United States and the Afghan government — and they don’t look like they’re going away.
“The Taliban can continue this insurgency indefinitely,” Bill Roggio, an expert on Afghanistan at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, told me.
That’s a problem, considering that the Taliban is actually winning the war against the Afghan military, which is backed by roughly 14,000 American troops in the country. Two charts from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US military’s Afghanistan war watchdog, make this clear.
The first chart shows that the Taliban and other insurgent groups now control more populated areas than they did in August 2016. The second shows that insurgent groups control even more districts in Afghanistan than they did in January 2016 — and their influence is growing.
That situation is unlikely to improve, as the US now wants the Afghan troops it supports to retreat to urban areas — effectively ceding control of rural communities to the Taliban. The group’s momentum has unleashed a fierce debate in Washington and Kabul over whether it is seriously open to negotiations to end the war.
Why the Taliban may — or may not — be serious about peace talks
Those who think the Taliban is a trustworthy partner for talks make three main points.
First, it’s something the Taliban has wanted for a long time. The group believes the US can deliver what it wants the most, which is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the removal of Taliban officials from international sanctions lists, says Courtney Cooper, a top Afghanistan official on the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017 and now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
However, the Taliban has rejected formal talks with the Afghan government, partially because President Ashraf Ghani’s administration wants the Taliban to disband.
Second, some experts believe the Taliban has moderated their stance — to a certain extent. The changes range from allowing women and minorities to play a bigger role within the organization to curbing some of its most unpalatable behavior.
“They have some capacity to pull back from brutality,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an insurgency expert at the Brookings Institution think tank. “When they burn down too many schools in a district, when they kidnap too many district officials, and the community comes to them and says, ‘This is really too much,’ they pull back.”
Perhaps the biggest demonstration of this was the Taliban’s supposedly self-imposed three-day ceasefire in June, even though it came after the Afghan government requested a pause in the fighting beforehand. No Taliban member engaged in the war during that time, and it showed the group’s leadership has an impressive level of control over its members.
In fact, Taliban fighters and US-backed Afghan troops took selfies in the ceasefire’s aftermath during Eid, an important holiday for Muslims.
Selfie of the year: #Taliban fighters and #Afghan military forces celebrate Eid together following a three day ceasefire. Can #Alshabaab and Somali National Army replicate this? pic.twitter.com/YLNoclWYa0
— Moulid Hujale (@MoulidHujale) June 15, 2018
But just over a week after the ceasefire’s end, the group killed around 30 members of Afghanistan’s security personnel.
And finally, the Taliban has realized the international community doesn’t want it to rule singlehandedly once more in Afghanistan, experts say. It has lately downplayed its desire to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — their name for the country when they ruled it — and may be more open to some kind of power-sharing agreement.
That, at least on the surface, seems like a departure from their hardline former stance. “The idea of peace talks are far less heretical now than they were six years ago,” Walsh, who has spent nearly a decade working on the Afghan peace process, told me.
Other experts push back on all of that.
For one, past attempts at peace talks with the Taliban have failed. On some occasions, like in 2012, the conversations lingered only on the specific item of a prisoner swap. Both sides came to an agreement on that in 2014, when the US received Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — who pleaded guilty to charges of desertion — in exchange for five Taliban commanders.
And Roggio says the Taliban has yet to change as a group, claiming it is still the same brutal insurgency that has terrorized and killed thousands over decades. The group’s own propaganda shows no signs of pushing a new doctrine, he notes, but it does mention that the US is desperate to talk to Taliban negotiators due to its position of strength.
The Taliban, then, may want to engage in talks solely to extract concessions from the United States, like removing its leaders from UN blacklists, releasing some of its former fighters released from Guantanamo Bay prison, or even officially ceding control of the rural areas to the group.
In effect, the Taliban would take advantage of its stronger position in the war and the Trump administration’s growing fatigue with all the fighting.
“We look tired,” Roggio told me. “We’re the ones who’ve withdrawn, we’re the ones who say we need to negotiate peace. The Taliban isn’t saying that. The only thing the Taliban is saying is that it will have peace when the US withdraws.”
Still, President Donald Trump’s impatience with the war, primarily the fact that US troops are still there, is apparently the main reason the administration is now pushing for Taliban talks.
Should they strike a deal palatable to both sides, it could possibly allow more US troops to leave the country. That means the Afghan forces, which the US has helped train and is currently in charge of the fighting in the country, would effectively be on their own.
The biggest problem for US and Afghan government officials now will be to suss out what the Taliban’s true intentions actually are. That may not be an easy or palatable task, but it may prove a better option than holding out for a military victory.
“It’s definitely worth exploring talks because the war is showing no prospect of being determined on the battlefield one way or another,” Felbab-Brown told me.
Author: Alex Ward