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Direct talks with Taliban: 'US exploring all avenues'

Anwar Iqbal Washington
July 18, 2018

The Trump administration is "exploring all avenues" and is in "close consultation" with the Afghan government to advance the peace process, a State Department spokesperson told DW. Anwar Iqbal reports from Washington.

General John Nicholson in Kabul
Image: Reuters/R. Gul

On Sunday, The New York Times (NYT) reported that the Trump administration had asked its diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, indicating a shift away from the policy of having no direct contact with the militants in Afghanistan.

Additionally, General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, was quoted by media outlets as saying Washington was ready to hold direct talks with the Taliban. According to a Reuters report from Kandahar published Monday, General Nicholson stated that the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US is "ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces."

The statement created much excitement in the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it was interpreted as the acceptance of the long-standing Taliban demand over holding direct talks with Washington on the presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

However, both NATO and Nicholson quickly denied the veracity of the reports.

In a statement released Monday in response to the media reports by NATO's Afghanistan Resolute Support mission, NATO "refutes reports by the media that the Resolute Support commander said the US is ready to join direct negotiations with the Taliban during a visit with Afghan provincial and government representatives in Kandahar."

In media reports released Tuesday, Nicholson said his statements indicating that the United States is ready to work with the Taliban were "mischaracterized."

"The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government," Nicholson said.

DW contacted the US State Department for clarification over the US position on negotiating directly with the Afghan Taliban.

"The United States is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government," said a State Department spokesperson. "Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government."

Read more: Civilian deaths hit record high in Afghanistan: UN

A 'significant shift' in US policy?

The NYT report also said that negotiating with the Taliban would be a "significant shift" in US policy in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban have long demanded direct talks with the US, as they claim that the US-backed government in Kabul does not have the power to consider their main demand over the withdrawal of "all foreign troops from Afghanistan."

The US, however, insists that the Taliban must talk to the Afghan government if they want to be included in the peace process. Washington also insists that it could only play a supportive role in the talks.

The US State Department emphasized in a statement to DW, that whatever avenues Washington was exploring for furthering the Afghan peace process would be done in "close consultation" with the government in Kabul. 

"The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government, and any substantive negotiations with the Taliban must include the Afghan government," said the State Department spokesperson.

"This remains an Afghan-led process. The United States stands ready to support, facilitate, and participate as requested by the government of Afghanistan," the spokesperson added.

The State Department noted that the Afghan government had offered the Taliban "an honorable and dignified path" to finding a peaceful end to the conflict. "The Taliban must engage with the sovereign government of Afghanistan," it added.

Read more: Afghanistan: Suicide blast targets Sikhs, Hindus

Some breakthroughs

Recent media reports have indicated that there may be room for rapproachment with the Taliban following 
the June Eid ceasefire in Afghanistan, which allowed Taliban fighters to mingle with Afghan security forces on the streets of Kabul and other cities. The "unprecedented scenes" were encouraging signs for officials in both Kabul and Washington. 

Read more: Why Taliban won't make peace with Kabul

A recent report by a US agency, the Office of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, points to another factor that could persuade Washington to seek direct talks with the Taliban. The report states that while the Afghan government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, the Taliban control 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested between the two.

The NYT report said that a decision to provide more authority to US diplomats for holding direct talks with the Taliban was taken last month and was "part of a wider push to inject new momentum into efforts to end the war."

Those efforts include the Eid ceasefire and increased US pressure on Pakistan to stop its alleged support for the Taliban, the NYT report added.

Read more: Global terror watchlist: Will Pakistan change its Afghanistan policy?

Talks with Afghan and Pakistani officials

"Over the past few weeks, senior American officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for direct United States-Taliban talks," the NYT noted.

"Secretary Pompeo briefly visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, last week, and Alice G. Wells, the top diplomat for the region, spent several days holding talks with major players in Afghanistan and Pakistan," it added.

Diplomatic observers in Washington say that General Nicholson and the State Department's statements do not negate the possibility that the US is approaching the Taliban to end a 17-year-long war that refuses to go away.

After losing thousands of American lives and investing hundreds of billions of dollars, Washington is still reluctant to pullout from Afghanistan because it is not sure if the setup it helped install in Kabul would survive the withdrawal.

Read more: Taliban take Afghan security forces hostage in Maidan Wardak

Besides, Washington has also achieved major objectives, which include obliterating groups like al Qaeda that could launch another 9/11 type attack inside the US.

US relations with Pakistan, which once facilitated US talks with the Taliban, have also soured, and instead of going through Pakistan, Washington could take advantage of direct contact with the Taliban.

This is also important because there's a realization in Washington that the Taliban are there to stay and will have to be included in any durable arrangement for restoring peace to the war-torn country.

The immediate US objective, however, is to ensure that the next parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, taking place in October this year, are held peacefully and on time. US policymakers believe that an election, which is recognized by both the Afghan government and the Taliban, could pave the path to a durable peace in Afghanistan and ultimately to a successful US withdrawal from the country.

Read more:Afghanistan peace marchers reach Kabul, 'tired of war'