KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — U.S. President Donald Trump said last week that he will not negotiate with the Taliban — a departure from Obama administration policy and from his own administration’s stance on the matter.
The president, who has long touted his negotiation prowess, said that a recent spate of attacks across four provinces of Afghanistan — including three in Kabul — have dissuaded him from engaging in talks with Afghanistan’s largest militant group.
“I don’t see any talking taking place … Innocent people are being killed left and right … So we don’t want to talk with the Taliban,” Trump said during a lunch with members of the United Nations Security Council.
The Taliban issued an immediate rebuke, saying Trump’s comments had “exposed his war-mongering face” and going on to criticize the Afghan government in Kabul for lacking “true authority of war and peace.”
Within days, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, seemed to echo Trump’s words.
“The door of peace for those behind the [recent] tragedy is closed … We will chase them anywhere they hide,” Ghani said at a Saturday meeting of the High Peace Council (HPC), the body responsible for reaching out to any group willing to lay down their arms.
Ghani’s statements came after 10 of the bloodiest days in Afghanistan since his government came to power in 2014. In late January, the Taliban and forces claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State carried out a series of attacks that killed more than 150 people in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Helmand. In a phone conversation with U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence, Ghani called the Taliban’s January 27 attack near a hospital in central Kabul “the 9/11 of Afghanistan.”
Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for the office of the Chief Executive, told ThinkProgress that the Taliban have no one but themselves to blame for the now closed door. Kabul, said Faisal, tried to balance its war efforts with a call for peace, but recent Taliban actions — including using an explosives-laden ambulance that killed at least 103 people — show the group has no interest in peace.
“From now on we will increase our efforts to destroy those who target Afghan civilians … We are now fighting for peace,” Faisal said.
A history of dashed hopes
Despite the recent definitive stances taken by both Kabul and Washington, the prospect of face-to-face negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban has always been riddled with complications, false starts, and dashed hopes.
Washington’s first overtures to the Taliban came after the September 11 attacks, when U.S. officials demanded that the Taliban hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder and then leader of the Taliban, feared that the United States would use the hunt for Bin Laden as a means to drive the Taliban from power. Refusing to hand over Bin Laden without evidence, Omar expressed a willingness to engage in talks with Washington.
The Bush administration’s response was swift and direct: “It’s time for action, not negotiations.”
By October 2001, Washington rejected yet another call for negotiations, and shortly thereafter, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began. Within a week of the invasion, the Taliban once again called for negotiations if the United States ended its bombing campaign of Afghanistan. Bush did not budge and the Taliban were eventually driven from power.
When Barack Obama took office, the tide had turned, the Taliban were on the rise, and his administration began to accept the possibility of a political settlement to end the war. By 2011, representatives from the Obama administration engaged in a series of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar. The following year, Taliban emissaries would take residency in the Qatari capital of Doha with the intention of establishing an office from which speak with the Afghan government — an effort that has been a constant source of controversy.
Even before their office briefly opened in the summer of 2013, Taliban representatives held a series of unofficial meetings with envoys sent by Western governments, including the United States. Western nations jockeying for the bragging rights that would come with bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table quickly overwhelmed the Taliban and angered the government of then-President Hamid Karzai, who felt the Taliban should only engage with the High Peace Council.
When their office did finally open in 2013, Karzai expressed anger when the group hung their black-and-white flag from the base in Doha. He saw it as a clear violation of the pre-negotiated terms for the outpost’s opening — terms meant to ensure the Taliban did not use the office as a political outpost.
The actions of the Doha office have continued to erode the trust of both Afghan presidential administrations. And, over the years, the Taliban has repeatedly insisted that they will only speak directly to Washington, which they believe is calling the shots for what they continue to see as a puppet government in Kabul.
“It’s clear now they are using it as a base for their own political aspirations and to procure funds for their operations, not for peace,” said Faisal.
Javid Ahmad, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, believes Doha was never the “right address” for the Taliban. To remedy this, the Afghan government has offered to host any Taliban leader willing to talk peace in Kabul.
All roads lead to Pakistan
Though there have been numerous official and unofficial meetings in France, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, China, and Kabul, both Ahmad and Faisal agree that, in the end, the road to peace in Afghanistan leads through their neighbor to the South.
In the early years of his administration, Ghani tried to make inroads with Pakistan, including the signing of a memorandum of understanding that would allow for collaboration between the two intelligence agencies and sending six Afghan Army officers for training in Pakistan. But the efforts proved deeply unpopular with the Afghan people.
After a 2016 truck bomb took the lives of at least 60 people and left hundreds more injured in the Shah Shahid neighborhood of Kabul, Ghani changed his tone, coming out against the nation with which he had just spent months trying to forge a better relationship.
“We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory … suicide training camps and the bomb-making facilities used to target and murder our innocent people still operate, as in the past, in Pakistan,” he said.
In an address to the nation last week, Ghani referred to the country as the “center” of the Taliban movement. That statement came only days after Afghanistan’s minister of Interior and intelligence chief traveled to Pakistan to present Islamabad with documents identifying individuals they say were responsible for the Jan. 20 attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and a 2017 attack on a military hospital.
Faisal said Kabul’s over-reliance on Islamabad has been the central flaw in its approach.
“They’ve proven that they’re unreliable partners,” Faisal said of Pakistan. The main problem, said Faisal, is that Kabul has been dealing with Pakistan’s civilian government, and not the military and intelligence agency, the bodies accused of supporting the Taliban.
During the past 17 years of the Afghan war, there have been countless meetings between government representatives from Kabul and Islamabad, but despite repeated promises, those gatherings have yielded few, if any, results. The Pakistani government’s promises carried little weight because “they aren’t the ones calling the shots about the Taliban,” said Faisal.
Afghan-to-Afghan talks bear fruit
Kabul insists that there are small groups of the Taliban constantly laying down their arms, which gives them hope for an agreement with the larger movement.
“We are keeping the HPC open specifically for these kinds of groups,” said Faisal.
What the government won’t do, though, is accept the Taliban’s demand to speak directly to Washington and not Kabul.
“We are an independent government that represents the Afghan people. If they are truly an Afghan movement then they should come talk to the leaders of Afghanistan. No one else,” said Faisal.
He added that there is a clear, recent precedent for the success of face-to-face peace talks between the Afghan government and militant groups. In 2016, the national unity government announced a peace deal with the armed wing of Hezb-e Islami, a rival group of the Taliban that at the time made up the second largest armed opposition movement in the country.
Last year, the group’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, returned to Kabul after decades in the cold. His group now has immunity from prosecution for their past crimes. Hekmatyar himself has taken residence in a massive West Kabul compound surrounded by armed guards, all on the government’s dime.
Faisal said no foreign government was involved at any point in the months-long talks between Hekmatyar and Kabul.
“What doesn’t Hekmatyar enjoy today? The Taliban should look to that as a model of what direct Afghan-to-Afghan talks can accomplish,” Faisal said.
Afghans across the country are supportive of Trump’s recent hardline stance on Islamabad, but Ahmad said that for the relationship to be fruitful, the two neighbors must come to an understanding that their relationship extends beyond Islamabad bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Islamabad, said Ahmad, must be convinced that “Afghanistan and Pakistan can live together, peacefully.”
For almost a decade, the Taliban has been subject to rapid splintering. This was perhaps most evident after the announcement of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2015, when the group split into at least two primary, warring branches. Local ground fighters splintered off into even more individual units, often operating in silos.
Ahmad and Faisal believe these divisions can be used to the benefit of the Afghan government. Exploiting Taliban divisions, a tactic the government has employed in the past, could help Kabul single out groups claiming to be part of the movement but with no actual ties to the central leadership.
“Right now, so many groups are claiming to be Taliban, but as groups come into the fold and lay down their arms, the splinter groups will become more and more exposed and isolated,” said Faisal.
The Taliban is “fragmented and divided across different ideological, factional, and tribal lines. It’s no longer a homogeneous group,” said Ahmad.
Given these continued difficulties, Ghani and Trump’s proclamations are likely to be of little consequence, as efforts at face-to-face peace talks with the Taliban have yet to yield any clear results. Instead, Kabul, with Washington at its side, is railing full steam ahead with its plan to “take revenge, but wisely.”
Though peace may be the primary objective, Ahmad says “ultimately, the end to the Afghan war boils down to the survival of the fittest.”