The United States is optimistic about a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban within five months despite the militants inflicting record high casualties on the security forces in the past few weeks. The militants appear to be negotiating from a position of strength as the US military has itself admitted that the Taliban are not losing in Afghanistan and much more needs to be done to bring peace to the war-torn country.
Experts say US President Donald Trump wants to signal to the American people before running for a second term that he is taking the US military forces out of Afghanistan. At the same time, he will ensure that Afghanistan never becomes a sanctuary for terrorists that could attack the US. American aims are now markedly different from the start of the war. When the US began its military operations against the Taliban on October 7, 2001, it aimed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations. The Taliban leadership is also aware that the American public is no longer interested in the war. They smell victory, quite oblivious of the fact that the new generation of city-bred Afghans may resist their rule. The biggest problem for the present Afghan government is that the Taliban leadership believes it to be illegitimate. The Taliban’s reliability is also questionable, because when the Afghan government started direct, formal contact with the Taliban in Pakistan, it transpired that Mullah Omar, who had supposedly blessed the project, had been dead for 27 months before the meeting.
The Taliban and the Afghan government have held two rounds of talks recently. Talking to the Taliban without preconditions was agreed upon by the previous US administration. Although the US is willing to speak to the Taliban, yet the main trouble in talking to them is that they are composed of several factions. Local commanders are inadequately represented in their Shura, adding a further complication for those who wish to engage with them. There are growing fears that any progress towards peace could be derailed by the April 20 presidential election in Afghanistan, which is expected to be fiercely contested and marred by violence. The Taliban have already stepped up attacks on Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces, which are suffering an unprecedented level of casualties. The death toll among Afghan soldiers and police is nearing 30,000 since the start of 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani revealed recently. In a recent report, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cited the NATO mission in Kabul as saying this summer’s toll had been worse than ever for Afghan forces. Recent Taliban attacks on ethnic Hazara-dominated districts in the south-eastern province of Ghazni have left hundreds dead, forced thousands of families to flee their homes and raised fears of sectarian violence.
The Taliban have made significant gains in Afghanistan after they were pushed out from Pakistan territory following the Zarb-e-Azb operation in the tribal districts especially North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan in 2013. Many believed they would not be able to continue their resistance to the US-led forces after the operation in Pakistan. Growing insiders’ attacks have also worsened the situation. For the first time since their government in Afghanistan was removed by the US-led multinational forces, they have successfully established themselves with more territory under their influence. They have extended their presence from the eastern and southern provinces to north and western Afghanistan. They are no more dependent on Pakistan for essential logistical support. They have found other sources to support and sustain. Another key factor that helped the Taliban is Russia. They also managed to keep themselves aloof from Islamic State (IS), also known as Islamic State Khorasan, which has established its footprints in Afghanistan after heavily losing its position in Syria and Iraq. The Taliban clashed with Islamic State Khorasan and managed to subdue the new challenge. Some major powers in the region, which were wary of the emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan, started backing the Taliban. According to assessments of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, they are getting all kinds of support from these countries.
Some analysts say the US was compelled to talk to the Taliban after the option of airstrike against them has become ineffective, as they have fortified their positions in villages and towns and use the population as shields. Many countries in the region, including Russia and China, are supporting a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Pakistan, being a major stakeholder in Afghanistan, supports all efforts for peace and stability in the country but is concerned about India’s hegemonic ambitions and a potential role the US wants to give to New Delhi in Afghanistan in the future.
The situation is chronically tough in Afghanistan but the Taliban cannot seize Kabul, the whole country, or restore the Islamic Emirate because of internal rifts. There is also no reason to believe that the Afghan authorities would be able to eliminate the radical movement. The Taliban, along with the allied Haqqani Network and scattered militant groups of several thousand people who regulate their ties with the Islamic State (Daesh), control about 40pc of Afghanistan. The extremists have come to the cities. The most protected areas such as the elite Wazir Akbar Khan area in Kabul, where embassies and international organizations are located, are under attacks. The Afghan counterparties and the Americans have divided zones of influence. Authorities control major cities, the Taliban the countryside as well as a lion’s share in the southeastern provinces. The “field commanders” stand apart keeping their share in the Afghan pie. Simultaneously, the parties are waging war in the disputed zones where neither the movement nor Kabul gains conclusive authority.
Besides a pullout of the foreign forces, the Taliban have long demanded that all their adherents held as prisoners be freed and sanctions against them be removed. The engagement with the Taliban is at a preliminary stage because aside from the demands, the Taliban have not yet unveiled the end-state envisioned by its leadership for Afghanistan, without which no settlement is possible. In case the US settles for withdrawal – with only a small military contingent and minimal air bases remaining on the ground – in exchange for an interim administration which includes the Taliban, it would not be acceptable to the Afghan government. The Taliban have not spelt out their plans and neither, for that matter, has the Afghan government shown its cards. Experts say the US will not accept all demands of the Taliban as it would imply giving up gains made since 2001. Any new political dispensation must be acceptable to the diverse ethnicities that compose Afghan society, otherwise peace will remain elusive even after 17 years of the war.