On 13 October, the Taliban leadership released a statement confirming that its representatives met with a team of American negotiators in Doha the day before. The Taliban press release, published in English, read in part: “The negotiation team of the Political Office of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – comprising the head [and other members] of the Political Office met with the US negotiation team headed by the US special representative for Afghanistan, Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad.” According to the Taliban, the talks evolved around “ending occupation” and “working towards finding a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict.” The Taliban emphasized that in their view “The presence of foreign forces [is] the greatest obstacle obstructing true peace and solving problems” since “Afghanistan is an Islamic country and has its own Islamic values and culture.” The statement concluded with the claim that American diplomats had agreed to “continue holding meetings in the future.”
Trump’s Afghanistan Policy 2.0
The news of American representatives meeting with the Taliban comes months after the U.S. administration made an important shift in policy on the matter. Back in July, President Trump ordered his top diplomats at the State Department to seek direct talks with Taliban leadership.
Why was this such a huge and important decision? Well for one, the United States has long insisted that the future of the Afghanistan conflict must be sorted out between the Afghan government and the Taliban face to face. The U.S. would act as a mediator, but in the end, the war in Afghanistan was an Afghanistan issue. Indeed, the whole long- term American vision for the country was to be able to solve its own problems, both security and diplomacy wise. The problem with this is that the Taliban refuses to have direct exchange with the internationally recognized authorities, viewing the central government in Kabul as an illegitimate entity. The fact that the Taliban has recently vowed a concerted effort to attack voting centers and otherwise disrupt the upcoming national elections is a testament to the strong feelings the militant group has on this point. The Taliban is only willing to talk with Americans, seeing them as the invaders of the country of which they are the only rightful rulers.
But America has never wanted to completely “own” the Afghanistan problem, and certainly did not want to take responsibility for negotiating its future. That’s why there’s been such a strong insistence the Afghan government be the one to take the lead. Trump’s revamped military strategy for Afghanistan —implementation of which began a year ago— was in essence an attempt to force the Taliban to get along with the Afghan government. Unfortunately, despite the initial optimism, the new strategy has fallen short of expectations. A province by province assessment of the country shows that months after putting the new strategy into play, the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan is either under Taliban control or contested. Furthermore, while the Taliban is getting pummeled by the might of the U.S. military, Afghans have been suffering at the hands of militants as well. The devastating operations executed by Taliban forces continue to wreak havoc on the population.
A Silver Lining
The fact that President Trump’s plan for Afghanistan didn’t exactly work out the way he and his generals expected doesn’t mean that the Afghanistan project is a failure. On the contrary, negotiating directly with the problem may be the best solution for ending one of America’s longest conflicts. Furthermore, the resources Trump threw into saving America’s efforts in Afghanistan were likely a major factor in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table at all. As fanatical and committed as they are, Taliban fighters are probably tired of hiding from American drones and dodging U.S. SpecOps. With any luck, the recently begun talks will lead to an end to this drawn-out and costly war.