After 17 years of war, there’s an opportunity to negotiate an end to the grueling conflict in Afghanistan, multiple U.S. government advisers and former officials told The Daily Beast. But they have substantial doubts that the Trump administration will capitalize on it.
Earlier this month, the Taliban showed, for the first time in the war, that they could order and enforce a cease-fire. And publicly, the Trump administration has proclaimed its desire to see some sort of peace talks move forward.
But those advisers told The Daily Beast that the administration remains internally divided over who should talk with the Taliban—and whether and how vigorously to capitalize on the three-day cease-fire.
The Taliban are holding out for direct talks with the United States over a military withdrawal, sidestepping Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s months-old proposal to talk Afghan-to-Afghan. U.S. diplomats have thus far declined, as Ghani—who faces an election next year—doesn’t want to appear like the junior player. The furthest the administration has gone has been to emphasize the importance of the Taliban negotiating with Ghani, which has struck some outside observers as insufficiently bold.
“We’ve got all the opportunity here. We can seize it or we can miss it,” said Chris Kolenda, a retired U.S. Army colonel, Afghanistan veteran, and former Pentagon adviser on the war.
Kolenda noted that the Taliban’s Feb. 14 communique expressing openness to talks treated U.S. core interests in Afghanistan—i.e., not exporting terrorism—as reasonable. “When your adversary accepts your war aims,” he said, “that’s what winning looks like.”
On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized that Washington was prepared to “support, facilitate and participate” peace talks, rhetorically opening the door to U.S. involvement in still-hypothetical talks. But the administration’s position, a State Department spokesperson emphasized to The Daily Beast, is that the Taliban needs to negotiate with Ghani, not Washington. It remains to be seen if Ghani will soften his opposition to U.S.-Taliban discussion.
“If Ghani wants it, I suspect the U.S. will do it,” said Barnett Rubin, a professor at NYU and a decades-long fixture of Afghanistan diplomacy.
Over the weekend, social media lit up with joyful pictures of Afghans, including Taliban fighters, celebrating a brief cease-fire pegged to the holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Taliban fighters re-entered Kabul—surrendering their weapons, according to local policemen, and encouraged selfies. The interior minister, whose job is to suppress the militant group, even met with Taliban representatives. A Zabul student told Reuters, “It is hard to describe the joy.”
“We saw some remarkable scenes here over the weekend,” British Lt. Gen. Richard J. Cripwell, the deputy commander of the NATO war command in Afghanistan, told reporters on Wednesday. “I cannot understate the sense of optimism that is in the country at the moment.”
But the cease-fire was only a pause in the violence. Earlier that same day, the Taliban attacked two checkpoints in western Afghanistan, killing at least 30 government soldiers.
According to multiple knowledgeable sources, there is an appetite among the Pentagon’s Afghanistan specialists for, at minimum, more aggressive diplomatic efforts to build on the momentum of the brief cease-fire—but also a hesitancy, not least because diplomacy isn’t in the Pentagon’s job description. Some sources speculated that the military brass fears Trump pulling up stakes in Afghanistan entirely after recommitting the U.S. to the war reluctantly.
“We believe the short ceasefire was an excellent starting point for confidence building between the Afghan government and the Taliban and encourage both parties to build on this momentum for the good of all Afghans, who deserve to live in peace,” said Lt. Col. Kone Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesperson.
Since Trump fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the architect of last summer’s troop mini-surge, the center of gravity for handling Afghanistan has shifted to the State Department. And Pompeo, for his part, has recently sounded conciliatory notes in his statements about the Taliban. Ghani’s proposed peace talks, Pompeo said, “by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” a euphemism for U.S. troops. Notably, Pompeo did not describe the Taliban as an enemy of either the U.S. or the Afghan people.
It wasn’t an overture for direct negotiations—which the Obama administration briefly attempted and which foundered (PDF)—but former officials considered it a signal to the Taliban that the Trump administration, at the least, isn’t against talking. Yet four knowledgable former officials described the internal decision-making process as bottlenecked. Getting over both the internal impasse and the difficulty in coordinating a U.S.-Ghani-Taliban process would probably require some as-yet-undetermined foreign mediator. “You’re likely to need some kind of third-party facilitator as the process gets underway,” a former senior diplomat said.
The State Department spokesperson signaled opposition to any bilateral U.S.-Taliban negotiation.
“The Afghan government has offered the Taliban an honorable and dignified path to finding a peaceful end to the conflict. The Taliban must engage with that sovereign government,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people and the Afghan government.”
Pompeo has a lot on his plate, not least of which is running the perilous nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. And the heft of his bureaucratic support on Afghanistan is an open question. At State, the seniormost diplomat handling the 17-year-old war is Alice Wells. But Wells, the acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, has to manage policy toward Pakistan, India, and a host of former Soviet states in addition to Afghanistan.
Jack Reed, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted on Tuesday that Wells may be out of the position in a matter of months, should new secretary Mike Pompeo choose a permanent assistant secretary. “Alice is overwhelmed and not empowered,” said a former State Department official, whose account was corroborated by another.
A State Department spokesperson said Pompeo has “full confidence” in Wells, a “skilled senior diplomat with 29 years’ experience” who is working with the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, John Bass, in “leading a dedicated team of professionals in support of the Afghan process.”
Sources familiar with the matter also expressed doubt that Pompeo had sufficient White House aid. The senior National Security Council staffer handling Afghanistan, Lisa Curtis, is said to be unforceful, and was a McMaster hire. Meanwhile, McMaster’s successor, John Bolton, is a cipher on Afghanistan diplomacy. The White House pointed to a speech Curtis gave last week, ahead of Pompeo’s statement, that said a negotiated political settlement must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”
Nor has the administration spoken with a singular voice. On Tuesday, the next commander in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. Austin Miller, acknowledged to a bipartisan group of frustrated senators that the U.S. has fought a “generational” war, but signaled no changes in how the military would wage it. Though Miller said the endstate the U.S. seeks is “a political reconciliation, or realignment”—the latter term suggesting a modus vivendi that includes the Taliban—he also described the Taliban as “the enemy of the Afghan people,” a characterization Pompeo conspicuously did not employ.
If the administration doesn’t seize the moment for diplomacy, the Taliban have options. It’s winning more than it’s losing. According to the most recent report by the U.S.’ internal Afghanistan watchdog, the Taliban holds sway over nearly 4 million Afghans in over 59 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. “The Afghan government’s control of districts is at its second lowest level, and the insurgency’s at its highest level” since 2015, the watchdog, known as SIGAR, assessed (PDF).
Still, the Taliban has its own concerns. It honored its cease-fire, but the Islamic State’s Afghan branch didn’t, launching suicide bombings to play spoiler. The Taliban is said to fear defections to Islamic State, as well as a corresponding breakup of the country—something that unites the Taliban with the government it’s fighting to overthrow.
“It’s a stalemate, but the Taliban is not losing, and for reasons no one likes to talk about—the government is unpopular because it cannot provide security and people resent the power of corrupt warlords. There’s an election next year and Ghani knows he’s not popular and needs to do something to assuage popular discontent,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat.
“Whether this ultimately proves to be a watershed moment or not remains be seen, but there’s no question that the U.S. should lead the way in testing the possibilities that it could be an opening,” said Laurel Miller, who until 2017 was the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan.
“It’s not guaranteed to be, but the fact that there were reciprocal goodwill gestures, and both sides were able to exert command and control to implement them, and the visible manifestation of interest from [Taliban] fighters, security forces and ordinary Afghans, shows an openness to testing the possibility that this could be converted into an opportunity.”