In perhaps the strongest indicator of what a Trump administration policy for Afghanistan will look like, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced Monday that the White House is open to “moderate” members of the Taliban joining the Afghan government.
Tillerson made the comments during a previously unannounced trip to Kabul, his first visit to the region. Speaking after a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other officials, Tillerson said the United States is ready to negotiate with the Taliban and willing to accept the militant organization’s presence in the government, on the condition that they renounce violence.
“Clearly, we have to continue to fight against the Taliban, against others, in order for them to understand they will never win a military victory,” Tillerson said. “And there are, we believe, moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. They don’t want their children to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government.”
Afghanistan has suffered for decades under the rulership of various governments. War with the Soviet Union and subsequent civil war spurred the Taliban’s nationwide takeover, which effectively ended when the United States invaded in 2001. But years have passed and the militant group remains a powerful force throughout Afghanistan — something made painfully evident by a recent string of bloody and devastating bombings.
The Trump administration has been slow to articulate its plan for Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have now spent 16 years — the longest war the United States has ever waged. Around 11,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis set to send at least 4,000 more under a new directive from President Trump.
That unending presence hasn’t yielded results. As of February, the Afghan government controlled only 57 percent of the country. By contrast, while the true extent of Taliban influence is up for debate, the group still controls a number of areas across Afghanistan. That activity has translated to extreme violence — the Taliban are responsible for the deaths for over 100 people in the past three months alone.
Now, it seems the White House is open to a Taliban presence in the government, the latest troubling sign that the group is far from vanquished.
Mending ties with the Taliban isn’t a novel idea; several governments have attempted that approach already, including the United States. Part of this is due to the Taliban’s extensive outreach and its overtures to countries like China and Russia. But most attempts at indirect peace talks with the extremist organization have resulted in gridlock. An effort last year — mounted by Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, and the United States — failed after a series of bombings hit Kabul (Afghanistan blamed militants from Pakistan for the attacks).
Another round of talks kicked off last week, with representatives from Pakistan, China and the United States gathering in Oman to discuss ways to re-engage the Taliban. The militant group reportedly sent no representatives.
The White House initially waffled on wading further into the country, at one point considering replacing troops with private mercenaries. But in April, military officials abruptly detonated their largest non-nuclear bomb, the MOAB — or “mother of all bombs” — in eastern Afghanistan.
Months later, Trump sought to address the White House’s path forward in Afghanistan during a speech at Fort Meyer, Virginia, if only in vague terms.
“As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically [….]” Trump announced in August. “We will not talk about numbers of troops, or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans, or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
Intended to lay out the administration’s plan for Afghanistan, the speech instead spurred greater confusion.
Since then, White House officials have mostly shied away from shedding more light on U.S. plans in Afghanistan. Tillerson’s comments in Kabul signal only that Trump is looking to repeat many of the same tactics used by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, including raising troop levels and reaching out to the Taliban.
While the administration eyes conversations with the Taliban, other players are falling under increased scrutiny. During his remarks Monday, Tillerson offered a strident warning to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor.
“We are as concerned about the future stability of Pakistan as we are in many respects here in Afghanistan,” Tillerson said. “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan.”
Islamabad has long been accused of harboring various militant figures, in addition to pushing a “Good Taliban, Bad Taliban” approach, encouraging unrest over the border while taking a hard line with the Taliban’s Pakistan outlet, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Trump used that talking point during his speech at Fort Meyer in August, accusing Pakistan of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” The president also demanded that the country do more to help, pushing neighboring India, with whom Pakistan has an acrimonious relationship, to do the same. Those demands didn’t go over well — several lawmakers and officials expressed displeasure with Trump’s comments, while others opted simply to ignore them. Virtually all indicated they were displeased with Washington’s interest in encouraging New Delhi’s presence in the conflict.
Tillerson echoed Trump’s harsh tone this week, reiterating the administration’s condemnation over Pakistani support for militants. But he did so without much of an audience: according to reports, Tillerson was only received at the airport by a mid-level Foreign Office official. He later held quiet meetings with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and General Qamar Javed Bajwa before heading out to his next destination — India.