The Trump administration has expressed a willingness to engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban to end the nearly 17-year-old Afghan war, marking a significant shift in U.S. policy long sought by the terrorist group, the New York Times (NYT) reported Sunday.
The administration has reportedly ordered “its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban,” the NYT revealed, citing unnamed senior American and Afghan officials, adding:
Providing more authority to American diplomats, a move that was decided on last month by Mr. Trump’s national security aides, is seen as part of a wider push to inject new momentum into efforts to end the war. Those efforts include a rare cease-fire last month, increased American pressure on Pakistan to stop providing sanctuary to Taliban leaders and a rallying of Islamic nations against the insurgency’s ideology. Grassroots peace movements in the region have also increased pressure on all sides.
The Times acknowledges that neither the U.S. State Department nor the Afghan Taliban have confirmed a shift in policy.
For years, the United States has refused the Taliban’s offer to discuss peace directly, insisting that negotiations must be led and owned by Kabul.
The recent strategy shift, which was confirmed by several senior American and Afghan officials, is intended to bring those two positions closer and lead to broader, formal negotiations to end the long war. … While no date for any talks has been set, and the effort could still be derailed, the willingness of the United States to pursue direct talks is an indication of the sense of urgency in the administration to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.
The change in strategy comes about a month after Afghan Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada renewed calls for direct discussions with the United States to end the war in a statement personally signed by the leader.
Trump administration officials have made “reconciliation” between Kabul and the Taliban the primary goal of its strategy to end the war, unveiled in August 2017.
U.S. officials have since endorsed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s historic offer to the Taliban of a ceasefire and official recognition as a political group.
Last month, the Taliban participated in an unprecedented three-day ceasefire at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, prompting U.S. officials to express optimism towards efforts to end the war.
Taliban jihadists have long insisted on the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces as a precondition for negotiations, but the United States has refused to abide.
In his statement calling for direct talks, Taliban chief Akhundzada stressed that the withdrawal of “occupying forces” is the “only path” towards peace.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently reiterated in a statement that the United States is against any preconditions for talks, but noted that everything, including the presence of U.S.-NATO-led troops, is up for discussion.
While in Kabul on June 30, Alice Wells, the top State Department diplomat for the region, reportedly explained:
I think Secretary Pompeo was very clear — we are prepared to facilitate, to support, to participate in — so there is nothing that precludes us from engaging with the Taliban in that fashion. What we are not prepared to do is at the exclusion of the Afghan government — that is the critical difference.
We are doing everything we can to ensure that our actions help the Taliban and the Afghan government to the same table.
Although Ghani’s offer does not explicitly mention a potential withdrawal, Borhan Osman, the senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group (ICG), noted in an editorial published by NYT that a recent peace process declaration by Kabul “hinted at the possibility of discussing such a withdrawal.”
Many war-weary Americans have also come out in support of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Soon after taking office, President Trump reluctantly intensified the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, launching an unprecedented number of airstrikes and increasing the American military footprint to about 15,000.
Nearly a year into Trump’s strategy, the Afghan Taliban continues to control and contest nearly half of the country and inflict record casualties on civilians and the country’s troops, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog agency created by Congress.