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Talking to the Taliban: The Trump Edition

 
 

“The U.S. policy in Afghanistan is working,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters. “We’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”

Such a refrain is making a comeback in U.S. policy circles tired of the 17-year war, which has cost the United States, by some estimates, at least $1 trillion and perhaps as much as $2 trillion and the lives of 2,300 servicemembers.

President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a platform of disengagement from state-building enterprises, announced his strategy to increase troop levels in order to help Afghan forces defeat the Taliban while at the same time increasing pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist sanctuaries. He said he had been convinced by his advisers that a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS [the Islamic State] and al-Qaeda.” The Trump strategy of “principled realism” is clearly more of a counterterrorism effort.

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“We are not nation-building again…We are killing terrorists” in the words of Trump. U.S. and NATO forces are at a stalemate, raising real concerns that withdrawing from Afghanistan could destabilize the country and result in a Taliban victory.  The Obama administration reached a similar point in 2009 and we saw overtures being made to the Taliban to begin peace talks. Some of the concerns raised at the time have still not been resolved.

Which Taliban Do We Talk To?

We hear policymakers in Afghanistan, the United States, and Russia refer to the need to bring “moderate” elements in the Taliban to the negotiating table. Moderate Taliban is a term used for any Taliban commander who takes the position that a military victory is not possible – once these individuals are identified, the question becomes how much influence they can bring to a formal peace process.

The Afghan government has to play an important role in identifying the “moderate” Taliban. The fact that the government made a peace deal in 2016 with the Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun Islamist warlord who had been accused of terrible atrocities in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, raised concerns among non-Pashtun groups and the Shia Hazara community as well as ordinary Afghans who see him as a divisive force. This alliance has definitely weakened the Afghan government’s credibility with minority groups in the country. The Afghan government for its part has complained that when individuals are identified they seem to disappear or are killed – and they blame Pakistan for this state of affairs.

The death of Mullah Mansour in 2016 was the result of a U.S. drone strike tacitly approved by Pakistan as he was returning from talking to Iranian and Russian officials who have, according to some reports, sided with the Taliban in order to check the influence of the Islamic State. The death of Mansour angered the Taliban and accelerated the departure of its leaders from Pakistan-controlled areas into southern Afghanistan, making it all the more difficult to identify the different factions within the group.

The other problem is that the Afghan government has made it clear that moving toward negotiating with the Taliban is only possible if violence declines, and the Taliban agrees to abide by the Afghan constitution and cuts its ties to al-Qaeda – none of which appears to be high on the agenda of the new Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Who Should Do the Talking?

This time around, the ability to talk to the Taliban is hampered by the political changes underway in the region. U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a problematic juncture because both Congress and the president agree that Pakistan has not acted in good faith and has provided sanctuaries for terrorist groups in its territory. The release of $900 million in Coalition Support Funds approved in the 2017 defense spending legislation has been blocked pending certification that Pakistan has taken specific actions against the Haqqani Network – the last time Pakistan received funds was in March 2017 from the 2016 defense spending legislation. In addition, in January 2018, the State Department announced that it was suspending security assistance to Pakistan, but civilian development and economic assistance would continue. The Pakistani government expressed its displeasure and indicated that these moves would be counterproductive to U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region. Since the main commander networks in the Afghan insurgency have historically maintained a presence in Pakistan this is a significant roadblock to attempts to jumpstart the negotiation process.

Any attempts to talk to the Taliban will also have to factor in Russia and Iran. These states have made major gains regionally as a result of their involvement in the crisis in Syria. They are now seizing the opportunity to step into the vacuum created by what they perceive to be a long, drawn out, withdrawal by the United States in Afghanistan. Russia has hosted regional talks on Afghanistan since December 2016 – the first was with China and Pakistan; the second in February 2017 also included India, Iran, and Afghanistan, bringing the number to six; and the last in April 2017 added the five Central Asian republics to the mix. The United States was invited to the 11-country talks but chose not to attend because it was viewed as a “vanity project” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Afghanistan, India and China favor engaging the United States since it is the country with the most boots on the ground.

Both Russia and Iran have negotiated with the Taliban in recent years for different reasons. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan from the beginning has been to stabilize the country and position itself as a counterweight to U.S. policy in the region. It is also interested in checking the flow of drugs to Central Asia and keeping the Islamic State from establishing a foothold. The Russians have reportedly reached out to those elements in the Taliban who are interested in a diplomatic resolution, rumored to have armed Taliban fighters, and supportive of Iran’s military training of the Taliban.

Iran for its part is interested in making sure that the government that comes to power in Kabul is a friendly one aligned with their interests. Iran signed an agreement in 2016 with Afghanistan and India to pursue economic cooperation to pursue a $31 billion project to develop its Arabian sea port at Chabahar. The support for the Taliban is mainly aimed at restricting the growth of the Islamic State, with its transnational jihadist message, in Afghanistan. Iran is known to have provided training for the Taliban, offering sanctuary and support to Taliban commanders and helping the Taliban recruit among the Afghan refugee population in Iran.

China has also reached out to the Taliban. Beijing is worried by the growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Chinese concern in securing the region led to an agreement in December 2017 with the Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan to set up a new military base in Badakhshan. They have urged the Taliban to accept the offer made in February this year by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s to recognize the movement and place it on the path to political legitimacy. China’s interest is closely linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion project which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and will require the construction of road, ports, and power projects. China is also concerned because instability in the region has attracted groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM is also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party) a group affiliated with al-Qaeda and founded in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. ETIM’s goal is an independent state that would encompass large swathes of China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The presence of training camps were confirmed during the recent bombing attack conducted by the United States, which targeted camps maintained by  the Taliban and the ETIM in Badakhshan.

Why Now?

The Trump administration’s interest in talking to the Taliban is not surprising. Trump started calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan on Twitter as early as 2011. He has called the war a waste of money and lives and urged then-President Obama to pull American troops out. His announcement of an increase in troop commitment to Afghanistan last year was apparently made after convincing arguments from his military advisers. As he charts a more independent policy with the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump might see the ability to negotiate with the Taliban as a precursor to a U.S. departure from the country.  

However, it is important to remember that the Taliban has come to the negotiating table only when they  gain ground militarily and this time appears to be no different. The Taliban has made substantial gains. In November 2015, the Afghan government controlled about 72 percent of the country while the insurgents had influence in 7 percent. USAF data released to CNN indicate that those numbers changed in 2017 to 56 percent under Afghan government influence or control and 30 percent under Taliban influence or control. Unofficial estimates of Taliban influence or control go up to 70 percent. Violence has accelerated in the last few months as the January 2018 bombings on the Intercontinental Hotel and other attacks show the Taliban and ISIS making headway even in the capital city.

Talking to the Taliban under these conditions is going to raise concerns among non-Pashtun groups like the Tajiks and Uzbeks (who also comprise the dominant groups in the Afghan National Army) who will view this as strengthening the Taliban and Pashtuns at the expense of other Afghan groups. In 2009 similar conditions led to concerns that militias formerly associated with the Northern Alliance, which fought in the civil war of the 1990s, were rearming. In 2017, a Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan comprising Tajik warlord-turned-provincial governor of Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor, ethnic Hazara leader and deputy to the government’s chief executive Mohammed  Mohaqiq, and Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is in exile in Turkey, came together uniting three of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minorities against the supposed tyranny of the government of President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun.

Under these conditions it is not clear that the United States and its allies are going to accomplish much by talking to the Taliban. In fact, given the ethnic and political complexity of the region, negotiations with the Taliban could see greater instability and violence. It may be better for the United States to join the regional efforts underway to bring stability to Afghanistan as a way to extricate itself from its longest war.

Professor Sudha Ratan teaches courses in international relations at Augusta University

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