White House orders direct Taleban talks to jump-start Afghan negotiations

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with coalition forces at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, on July 9, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taleban, a significant shift in US policy in Afghanistan, done in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war.

The Taleban have long said they will first discuss peace only with the Americans, who toppled their regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But the United States has mostly insisted that the Afghan government must take part.

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.

The shift to prioritise initial US talks with the Taleban over what has proved a futile "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned" process stems from a realisation by both Afghan and American officials that President Donald Trump's new Afghanistan strategy is not making a fundamental difference in rolling back Taleban gains.

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.

Not long after he took office, Trump reluctantly agreed to provide more resources to his field commanders fighting the Taleban, adding a few thousand troops to bring the US total to about 15,000.

But a year later the insurgent group continues to threaten Afghan districts and cities and inflict heavy casualties on the country's security forces.

The government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, and the Taleban 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested, according the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which was created by Congress to monitor progress in the country.

Providing more authority to US diplomats, a move that was decided on last month by 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 US pressure on Pakistan to stop providing sanctuary to Taleban 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.

Over the past few weeks senior American officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for direct US-Taleban talks.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, last week, and Alice G. Wells, the top diplomat for the region, spent several days holding talks with major players in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Efforts have particularly focused on trying to persuade the Afghan leadership that such talks are not a replacement for negotiations with the country's coalition government, but are meant to break the ice and pave the way for those.

Because the previous Afghan government felt left out of peace efforts during the Obama administration, it resisted direct talks, which was one reason peace efforts at that time collapsed.

Neither the State Department nor a Taleban spokesman would comment on the shift of policy toward engaging the Taleban directly.

Wells, during her trip to Kabul, reported a new "energy and impulse for everyone to renew their efforts to find a negotiated settlement," largely as a result of the cease-fire.

Days earlier, Pompeo, in a statement, said that there would be no precondition for talks - and that everything, including the presence of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, was up for discussion.

"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 Taleban in that fashion," Wells said. "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," she added, "to ensure that our actions help the Taleban and the Afghan government to the same table."

With the focus now just on getting negotiations started, it is too early to assess what a final deal acceptable to both sides might look like.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said last month at a news conference that the peace process would be a complicated, layered effort rolled out in phases that were still in the preparatory stage. He left open the possibility of a more direct US role in the early efforts.

"Various ideas, creative ideas are floating on how to break this logjam and get started," Ghani said.

Afghan officials and political leaders said direct US talks with the Taleban would probably then grow into negotiations that would include the Taleban, the Afghan government, the United States and Pakistan.

"If we look backwards, the Bonn process is a pretty good paradigm for what ultimately a peace process is going to look like," Wells said, referring to the 2001 talks in the German city that established the post-Taleban government in Afghanistan.

"You are going to start off - the Afghans speaking to one another, but obviously the United States and Pakistan were critical in that inner core, and then you build out."

A near-consensus has grown among American and Afghan officials involved in earlier and current efforts to fire up a peace process that the only way out of the war is for the United States to take a more direct role in negotiations.

That realisation rests on several facts: that the Taleban are a stubborn insurgency, that they have not budged on their demand to talk directly with the Americans, and that the Afghan government, mired in infighting and marred by political opposition, would struggle to lead a cohesive peace agenda without American help.

Douglas E. Lute, a former ambassador to Nato who advised Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush on Afghanistan, said he supported the new marching orders for US diplomats, although he was not privy to deciding on them.

"We're in diplomatic gridlock right now," Lute said. "We ought to look for creative ways to move this forward."

Officials have been moving with a sense of urgency because Trump has expressed his frustration with the war and is desperate to see its end, said a senior US official who, like many spoken to for this article, requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss confidential diplomatic discussions.

During last week's Nato summit meeting in Brussels, Trump expressed agreement with a reporter's question that contained the notion that "people are fed up" with the Afghan war.

"Yeah," Trump said Thursday. "I agree with that. I very much agree. It's been going on for a long time. We've made a lot of progress, but it's been going on for a long time."

An important distinguishing factor of the recent push, according to officials involved in previous efforts, is that the US military seems very much on board.

In 2011, when the Obama administration first shifted to a policy of ending the war through negotiations, military commanders still believed they could defeat the Taleban. Now, they define their goal more modestly: keeping the Taleban from victory until a political settlement is reached.

General John W. Nicholson, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, was instrumental in initiating last month's rare ceasefire.

As further indication that he is an active part of the new peace effort, he has as an adviser a member of the team that made the initial contacts with the Taleban around 2011.

Those early efforts fell apart after disagreements with the Afghan government, then led by President Hamid Karzai.

Still, the Taleban established a political commission by moving some of their officials to Doha, Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.

In 2014, the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner of war who had been kidnapped by the Taleban after he walked off his base, was negotiated through the Doha office.

Another brief moment of hope occurred in 2015, when Afghan officials and representatives of the Taleban met at a resort town in Pakistan.

But the credibility of the Taleban representatives who came to the table was questioned, and the process collapsed when news emerged that the Taleban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, in whose name they were negotiating, had actually been dead for three years.

Even if talks do begin again, many observers point to how difficult they will be.

Seth Jones, who heads the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there was little evidence that the Taleban's senior leaders were seriously interested in settlement terms acceptable to Afghan and American officials.

"Most Taleban leaders believe they are winning the war in Afghanistan and that time is on their side," Jones said.

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