Eleven months ago, President Trump held a prime-time press conference to announce what was billed as a major shift in his administration’s Afghanistan policy — though it wasn’t really bold, new, or even a strategy. Now the administration is said to be quietly pursuing what may be a much more significant change in its approach, directing top U.S. diplomats to pursue direct talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban views the Afghan government as illegitimate, and has long said it would only negotiate with the U.S., which toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. The U.S. has generally insisted that the Afghan government must be involved.
The Trump administration has offered conflicting messages on talks with the Taliban. In September 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis underscored that the point of expanding military involvement in Afghanistan was to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table. “I want to reinforce to the Taliban that the only path to peace and political legitimacy for them is through a negotiated settlement,” Mattis said.
But several months later, after a pair of Taliban attacks in January 2018 killed more than 100 people, Trump said the U.S. had no interest in talking to the Taliban. “So there’s no talking to the Taliban. We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish,” Trump said.
During a surprise visit to Afghanistan earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that the U.S. would support Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban, following a successful simultaneous cease-fire the previous month.
“An element of the progress is the capacity that we now have to believe that there is now hope,” Pompeo said.
“Many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily. That’s … deeply connected to President Trump’s strategy,” he added.
Privately, The Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. and Afghan officials say the conflict is at best a stalemate. According to U.S. government figures, the Afghan government controls or influences 229 of the country’s 407 districts, the Taliban controls 59, and the other 119 are contested. Meanwhile, the United Nations said that in the first six months of this year, civilian deaths reached 1,692, the highest number of fatalities since the U.N. began tracking this data in 2009. Militant attacks and suicide bombs were the leading cause of death.
Pompeo said potential peace talks would be Afghan-led, though the . U.S. would have a major role. But the New York Times reported on Sunday that U.S. officials have been told to prioritize direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, as the Afghan-led approach isn’t going anywhere.
In recent weeks U.S. officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for these talks, and assure the Afghans that they are only meant to be a precursor to broader talks that would likely include all four nations.
Afghanistan’s president Ghani seemed to allow for this U.S.-led strategy when he said at a press conference last month that talks would come in stages. “Various ideas, creative ideas are floating on how to break this logjam and get started,” he said.
Even if direct U.S.-Taliban talks manage to break the ice, the larger negotiations would be incredibly difficult. Seth Jones, who heads the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tells the Times that top Taliban leaders don’t seem particularly interested in terms that the U.S. and the Afghan government would find acceptable.
“Most Taliban leaders believe they are winning the war in Afghanistan and that time is on their side,” he said.