For the last six months, Afghanistan has felt the stirring of something rare: if not peace, then the promise of its pursuit. President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban into negotiations without preconditions in February. Islamic scholars and Afghanistan’s neighbors rallied behind that offer in the subsequent months, while sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations broke out across Afghanistan, calling for an end to the country’s chronic conflict. For the first time in 40 years, the warring parties observed a nationwide cease-fire over three jubilant days in June.
According an article by John Walsh in the Foreign Affairs magazine, the vital question throughout this period has been whether the Taliban insurgency is actually open to making peace. The group has sent mixed signals this summer — agreeing, on one hand, to the June cease-fire, as well as restarting direct talks with the United States, but all the while continuing its years-long refusal to negotiate with what it calls the illegitimate Afghan government. The Taliban did not formally accept a second cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday in August, and the intensity of its military campaign has hardly flagged. What, then, do the Taliban ultimately want, and is their leadership sincere about peace talks? The writer’s own conversations with people close to, and in contact with, Taliban political figures in recent months suggest that there is a genuine, if temporary, opening for peace.
Since the fall of their regime in 2001, the Taliban have consistently proclaimed two fundamental objectives: they want foreign troops out of Afghanistan and an Islamic government restored to power. For years, these demands were almost entirely rigid. In recent years, however, the Taliban’s agenda has evolved, such that compromise is now conceivable.
In meetings with foreign visitors and non-official Afghans, Taliban political figures now privately say that they merely need a “timetable” for US troops to withdraw. This timetable’s duration can be flexible and might not end in a complete US withdrawal. Some Taliban members say the group is even open to a “conditional” withdrawal, in which the US would redeploy its forces over a period of years, in response to the meeting of key milestones in a peace process. Taliban interlocutors explain the shift in their thinking by pointing out that Afghanistan could “become another Syria” if foreign troops leave too quickly. Another motive may be the group’s oft stated desire to have productive relations with the US and other nations in the future.
Taliban figures frequently suggest a sequence of steps that could lead to such a political settlement. The first would be for the United States to issue its timetable for troop withdrawal. Kabul and the Taliban would then negotiate a “caretaker government,” made up of relatively neutral technocrats and assigned a clear expiration date. This government would oversee a constitutional review, the comprehensive reform of Afghan security services, and the selection of a more permanent government, most likely through an election. Some of those I spoke with suggested starting this sequence before the April 2019 presidential election, on the grounds that a newly elected president with a five-year mandate will have little incentive to surrender power.
If the Taliban come forward with a version of this plan, Kabul and Washington are unlikely to accept it without modification. Washington will be reluctant to commit to troop withdrawals at the outset of a process, and any Afghan president will hesitate to simply cede power to a caretaker government. The plan does not address thorny questions such as how Afghanistan’s many factions and political groups will divide power, what conservative religious reforms the group might insist on, and what fate awaits tens of thousands of armed men across Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the plan furnishes more than enough of the basic materials for skilled diplomats in Kabul and Washington to begin building a lasting political settlement. Indeed, if leaders in those capitals were themselves to map Afghanistan’s political transition, they would likely begin with many of the same elements.
The Taliban are genuinely interested in peace but far from desperate for it. In the meantime, the group remains committed to its military campaign. This position reflects battlefield confidence: Taliban leaders judge that the group can withstand US military pressure and, if the US eventually leaves, win the war. They probably recognize, however, that such a scenario is unlikely to unfold anytime soon. Even the current, much-reduced American presence is enough to keep the Taliban from winning. To take power after a US withdrawal would be bloody and arduous. For these and other reasons, the Taliban are willing to contemplate peaceful alternatives.
Skeptics will point out that the Taliban have had the opportunity to negotiate for peace since at least 2010, when it sent representatives to Qatar to conduct talks with diplomats from the US. Many argue that the group has used this platform only to stall and seek concessions from Washington. The writer has been part of the State Department’s efforts to work with this channel for nearly all of its life span, and the channel has moved slowly and sometimes painfully. But the Taliban negotiators are not solely responsible for the impasse. Both the Afghan and the US governments have often been internally divided over whether and how to pursue peace with the Taliban, with the result that neither has yet put an offer on the table that meaningfully addresses the Taliban’s two fundamental objectives.
Those who doubt the Taliban’s readiness for peace will point to the sheer volume of Taliban violence. But intensity of military effort has as little bearing on the Taliban’s interest in peace as it does for the other parties to the conflict. Under conditions of war, talking and fighting often occur in parallel. Other than during the recent cease-fire, none of the parties — the US, the Afghan government, and the Taliban — have pulled their punches on the battlefield, even when they sincerely desired talks.
The overwhelming popularity of the June cease-fire—including among Taliban fighters—suggests that many Afghans would support this. The Taliban is far from certain to join such a process, but there may never be a better time to make a bold offer.