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Trump administration weighs direct talks with the Taliban

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speak at a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on July 9, 2018.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speak at a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on July 9, 2018. (Pool/Reuters)

The Trump administration is making a renewed push to jump-start peace talks in Afghanistan and is considering restarting direct negotiations with the Taliban, a move that in the past has drawn protests from the Afghan government.

U.S. and Afghan officials described the possibility of talks between the United States and the Taliban as being in the early stages.

“There is renewed attention . . . but no clear negotiating strategy [and] no personnel to carry out real talks,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

The peace effort is being spurred by concerns that the current Afghanistan strategy, approved by President Trump last summer, and the addition of several thousand U.S. troops have not been enough to break the stalemated conflict or reverse Taliban momentum.

Meanwhile, a peace effort led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been stymied by the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government. U.S. and Afghan officials described the possibility of one-on-one talks with the Taliban as a way of breaking the logjam.

“I read this as a very positive development,” said Johnny Walsh, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former lead adviser at the State Department on the Afghan peace process. “I think the administration is trying to take away, one by one, the Taliban’s excuses for not talking.”

Some issues, such as the role of the Taliban in the Afghan political process, revisions to the Afghan constitution and protections for women, can be decided only by Afghans, he said. But other issues, such as the level of U.S. troops and their mission, could be raised in direct American talks with the Taliban.

A Dubai shopping trip and a missed chance to capture the head of the Taliban

The news of the fledgling diplomatic initiative was first reported by the New York Times. A Taliban spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned in a statement that the “United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people or the Afghan government” in talks. Afghan officials expressed a similar message.

“This remains an Afghan-led process,” said Haroon Chakhansuri, Ghani’s chief spokesman. “The Taliban must engage with the sovereign government of ­Afghanistan.”

But a Ghani administration official privy to the efforts confirmed the new tack.

“The U.S. wants to find a way out. They cannot continue forever, and the U.S. and Afghanistan want to address all demands to somehow bring the Taliban to the table,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak publicly. “Kabul is on board for sure, but whether they like it or not is a question.”

In recent weeks there have been signs that the U.S. government is weighing new approaches. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted last week during a trip to Kabul that the U.S. troop presence, which the Taliban has said is the primary driver of the insurgency, could be a subject of negotiations.

“We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said.

One big unanswered question is whether the Taliban is willing to give any ground in talks, especially when it seems to be holding its own on the battlefield. Christopher Kolenda, who met with Taliban officials as a U.S. military officer and more recently as a civilian in talks supported by a private group, said the Taliban increasingly fears the dissolution of its country and shares some U.S. goals on issues related to counterterrorism, counternarcotics and corruption.

“When your adversary accepts your war aims, that is what winning looks like,” Kolenda said.

Other former U.S. and Afghan officials were less sanguine about the possibility for progress on talks, but still supported a renewed diplomatic initiative. A recent cease-fire, which held for three days, suggested that the Taliban retains control over its forces. During that pause, there were reports of Taliban fighters posing for pictures with Afghan army forces.

“That tells me that there is a lot of demand for peace, not just among the people but the fighters, too,” said Andrew Wilder, a vice president at USIP.

In the past, the U.S. military has been skeptical of peace talks. But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Pompeo are said to be supportive of a renewed diplomatic effort.

Still, barriers to talks remain. Several Afghan lawmakers who are close to Ghani were caught off-guard by the news, saying his administration should have consulted them before agreeing to take a back seat in peace negotiations.

“We have an elected government, and it should be involved in peace talks,” said Abdul Qadir Qalatwal, a member of the Afghan parliament from the southern province of Zabul.

Another question is whether the Trump administration, which is short-staffed and ­focused on other crises, has the ability to conduct talks that could stretch out over years. Some current and former officials have raised the possibility of finding an international mediator to oversee the talks.

“It would be very valuable to have a neutral individual or third party facilitate a peace process so that it could sustain itself through the inevitable stresses and strains ahead,” said Laurel Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at the Rand Corp. and a former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. “There’s a very strong argument right now for being flexible and creative.”

Olivo reported from Kabul. Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan, also in Kabul, contributed to this report.