President Trump calling off the talks with
Taliban insurgents on Sept. 7 has, at least for now, quashed hopes of imminent
agreement between the United States and the Taliban. The two sides had appeared
to be on the brink of a deal that might have paved the way for talks among the
insurgents, the Afghan government and other Afghan power brokers. The agreement
could have been Afghanistan’s first significant step toward peace in a
tweets calling off the talks, Mr. Trump cited the death of an American soldier
as evidence that the Taliban were not negotiating in good faith. The
insurgents’ strikes in towns and cities exact a high civilian toll. Though they
claim otherwise, they are pursuing a brutal war of attrition, hoping to grind
down morale among Afghan troops and to show they can outlast the American
Mr. Trump’s reason to end talks makes no sense: The United States shares
responsibility for increased violence.
intensification in American bombing raids — the United States flew more raids
in 2018 than during any previous years of the war and is on track to do the
same in 2019 — and offensives by Afghan forces have occurred in parallel. While
Taliban attacks on urban centers remain more visible, the attacks by American
and Afghan government forces on rural Afghanistan, which have caused enormous
suffering, remain largely hidden. Few report casualties to the authorities or
after the talks were called off, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that
pro-government forces had killed 1,000 insurgents in the previous ten days. A
flurry of night raids and aerial bombings by American and Afghan forces in the
first half of 2019 led the United Nations — which collects the best available
data on the conflict — to conclude that the number of civilians killed by
pro-government forces exceeded those killed in Taliban attacks for the first
time since they starting tracking these statistics in 2009.
American and Afghan officials say their intensified military pressure was
provoked by the Taliban’s attempts to seize major cities, the United States
military also declares that airstrikes and an escalating campaign can either
coax the Taliban into compromise or fracture it. Both their and the Taliban’s
strategies have failed, even as the toll on Afghan civilians and society
In a way,
the argument put forth by many in the United States — including by Mr. Trump
himself — that Taliban violence is incompatible with peace talks mirrors one
that has been made by the Taliban themselves.
having spent years tracking the Taliban’s public and internal debates, what
surprised me was that it was America rather than the Taliban that pulled out of
talks over the mutual escalation in violence.
this year, Taliban leaders came close to pausing the talks in protest at the
scale of American bombing. They hoped to score political points by drawing
attention to the little-reported suffering of civilians in rural areas under
the insurgents’ control.
uptick in violence, at several points during the talks Taliban leaders
struggled to resist pressure from their rank and file to stop negotiating.
Taliban leaders pressed ahead believing the talks could yield an agreement on
the departure of foreign forces, one of their main aspirations.
talks between American officials and Taliban leaders throughout this year have
done nothing to diminish violence. Even as the two negotiating teams appear to
have moved toward agreement on a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops
and for the Taliban preventing the use of Afghanistan as a base by
international terrorists, levels of bloodshed have risen.
and offensives by the American and Afghan government forces on one hand, and
Taliban offensives and attacks on the other, have increased at the same rate as
progress in the negotiations. This is hardly unique to Afghanistan: Violence is
often used to gain negotiating leverage ahead of peace talks.
diplomats have pressed for a cease-fire during talks. But Taliban leaders
reject the idea, reluctant to jeopardize their military capability, which they
see as their main source of leverage in reaching a deal with the United States
not only on the withdrawal of foreign forces but also a wider settlement
reached among Afghans enabling the Taliban to become part of a new political
order. They may fear that the insurgency’s ranks, once the fighting stops,
would be hard to fire up again.
some Taliban commanders who had been prepared to give talks the benefit of the
doubt now discreetly reproach their envoys for wagering too much on the United
States and failing to consider what they now see as American unreliability.
door has not closed shut. President Trump still has a historic opportunity to
help end America’s longest war. Both the Taliban and Washington want the
American military presence in Afghanistan to wind down. It will be important
that any deal the United States makes should focus not just on conditions for
troop withdrawal but also on laying the ground for successful intra-Afghan
talks. American diplomats must subsequently vest as much effort in supporting
those talks as they have in trying to secure the bilateral deal.
the Taliban would agree to a mutual cease-fire that eases the suffering of
Afghans in both urban and rural areas. In reality that is unlikely to happen.
But citing insurgent violence to justify ending talks overlooks the escalated
American military campaign — and is a recipe for either an endless American
presence or for a withdrawal without concessions from the Taliban in return.
American diplomats get back to the table the better.
Osman is a senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.
Headline: Trump Must Restart the Taliban Talks
Source: The New York Times