Taliban officials over the weekend dealt a major blow to a multilateral effort involving the U.S., China, Pakistan and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani to lure the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Following a similar plea by Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that the Taliban “should engage in a peace process and ultimately become a legitimate part of the political system of a sovereign united Afghanistan.”
“There is and should be a sense of urgency around getting these talks up and running,” said Mr. Kirby, who stressed that if the talks don’t come together soon, U.S. and Afghan forces should prepare “for the potential for increased violence in the spring and summer months.”
Pakistani officials said last week that direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were slated for some time in early March. But with many seeing the Ghani government on the defensive, the Taliban over the weekend said in a statement that no negotiations could begin until “the occupation of Afghanistan has ended.”
“We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” the group said, according to Reuters. The Taliban “once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results.”
The statement cast a fresh shadow over the peace process aimed at ending the war that has gripped the nation since a U.S.-led coalition of forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan 14 years ago.
The process has essentially been stalled since late July, when Taliban representatives backed out after the sudden revelation that the group’s long-secretive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead since 2013.
While Afghan and Pakistani officials have claimed to be making slow but steady progress toward reviving the peace process during recent months, the Taliban have intensified their war to overthrow the government in Kabul. A string of recent territorial gains against Afghan National Security Forces has appeared embolden Taliban leaders.
NATO formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan more than a year ago. President Obama previously vowed to withdraw all U.S. forces but changed course in the face of Taliban advances last fall and announced that some 9,800 American troops would remain at least through the end of this year.
U.S. troop numbers peaked in Afghanistan at just more than 100,000 in 2011. Those who remain are on a vaguely defined advisory mission with Afghan National Security Forces. The Pentagon has said they are in a combat “situation” but not a combat role.
No incentive to negotiate
Tony Cordesman, a longtime regional security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Taliban’s statement over the weekend was not surprising.
“The Taliban has very little incentive to negotiate because it is basically winning in many areas, all while the U.S. is still committed to reducing its troop presence and the Afghan government forces seem to be essentially losing,” Mr. Cordesman said in an interview Monday.
He said the situation is made more complex by reports of growing infighting among factions within Taliban.
“A deeply divided Taliban means you don’t have the unity to come to the table necessarily,” Mr. Cordesman said.
He added that U.S. officials should ask themselves whether Taliban leaders really “think there is anything to win at the peace table that they haven’t already been able to win on the battlefield.”
He also suggested that Washington could do more to bring the Taliban to the table by announcing the possibility of a beefed-up U.S. advisory presence for Afghan security forces, as well as possible combat air support in battles against the insurgents.
Taliban infighting, meanwhile, is reported to be at its worst in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, the heartland of the nation’s illicit opium trade estimated to be worth as much as $3 billion a year.
The group considers Helmand to be part of its base, but competition for control of the province’s smuggling routes is fierce.
There are also reports of a growing Islamic State presence in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the nation’s east. The extremist group, based in Syria and Iraq, is seen increasingly to want a piece of Afghanistan’s lucrative illicit trade in drugs, weapons and minerals.
Officials of the Ghani government dismissed the Taliban’s rejection of new talks over the weekend as posturing. They predicted that the insurgents would soon get back to the bargaining table.
“The process may be delayed, but the Taliban will show up for talks — this we are sure of,” one unidentified top official in Kabul told the Agence France-Presse news service. “Their tough talk is just public posturing and aimed at their own hard-line commanders who aren’t ready to see their leaders joining the negotiating table.”
Officials in neighboring Pakistan took a lead role in trying to facilitate the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Sartaj Aziz, the top national security and foreign policy adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told reporters in Washington last week that officials in Islamabad have high hopes for the process but are realistic about the risks involved.
“Once the process begins, it is not going to be a quick process,” said Mr. Aziz. “But I think our anxiety is that if in the coming weeks some progress is made, then it can have an impact on the level of insurgency in the summer months.”
“If we don’t make progress and summer starts,” he said, “then the insurgency can become much stronger.”
By Guy Taylor