Trump’s refusal to talk to the Taliban may be timely

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Trump’s refusal to talk to the Taliban may be timely

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Last month, President Donald Trump told visiting members of the UN Security Council that the US would no longer talk with the Taliban following a recent string of deadly attacks in Afghanistan. This appeared to be a departure from the president’s own Afghanistan war strategy, which saw the intensified military campaign as a means to pressure the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. 
The president’s comments followed a deadly car bombing attack in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that killed at least 95 people and wounded 158. Many foreigners, including Americans, were killed and injured in the Taliban’s 13-hour siege of a hotel in Kabul.
At the juncture when US steps up the military campaign and steps back from seeking a political end to the war, it appears Afghanistan’s regional neighbors and some within the Afghan government have accelerated efforts to restart peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Although the recent flurry of activity to restart talks with the Taliban may or may not be directly linked to President Trump’s new military strategy on Afghanistan, it may provide some opportunities to the Trump administration to claim limited policy success on Afghanistan. 
Before President Trump’s recent comments, high-ranking members of the US administration clearly linked US military strategy in Afghanistan with the desired outcome of political negotiations with the Taliban. Last month, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the next logical step to the escalation of military operations is to “really come on strong at the reconciliation effort because that’s the way this is going to end.”

By privately supporting new peace initiatives while publicly staying out of talks, the US can claim success for its Afghanistan strategy

Dr. Simbal Khan

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also claimed the new strategy as a success and specifically mentioned possible future direct talks with the Taliban. “The US policy on Afghanistan is working, Haley told reporters in New York ... “We are seeing that we’re closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.” Haley also said that the entire peace process was Afghan-led and owned, adding: “We don’t think that we need to facilitate the peace process; we think we need to support the peace process.”
Looking at the recent contacts with the Taliban, this is precisely what seems to be happening. Unlike in the past, the US role is conspicuously absent in any of the new initiatives. Earlier the US was part of the unsuccessful peace initiative known as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) started in January 2016 to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict. The QCG, comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US, has so far unsuccessfully sought to bring the Taliban into direct negotiations with the Afghan government. The Murree Peace Process started under the QCG become contentious after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and was subsequently abandoned after his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike. 
Of the new initiatives, one of the tracks appears to be entirely Afghan-owned and led: one between Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai and the group and another between the president’s National Security Adviser Mohammed Hanif Atmar and the Taliban. Although reportedly there is little coordination between the two tracks and both the intelligence chief and the NSA were not talking to the High Peace Council, the formal government body was set up to manage peace talks with the Taliban. 
Another new track appears to be a Pakistan-led exploratory initiative to test the waters started last month. A delegation approved by the Taliban’s leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada visited Islamabad for exploratory talks on restarting peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The three-member Taliban delegation, which included Shahabuddin Dilawar and Jan Mohammad Madani from the Taliban’s political office as well as the brother-in-law of Mullah Yacoob, son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, were part of this initiative. 
They met representatives of Afghan politician Syed Hamid Gilani, Chairman of Mahaz-e-Milli Party. Setting the stage for these talks, the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network released 14 Afghan army soldiers in the eastern province of Paktia as a goodwill gesture according to both the Taliban officials and the aide to Gilani. 
President Trump’s public stance of repudiating talks with the Taliban may well create more space for political diplomacy in Afghanistan and a limited “win-win” for the White House. By privately supporting new peace initiatives while publicly staying out of talks, the US can claim success for its new Afghanistan strategy: If the Taliban come to the table through regional or Afghan mediation, the US can claim that the military campaign against the Taliban is working and military pressure is bringing them to the negotiating table. In case the talks fail, it vindicates the president’s policy position on rejecting direct talks with the Taliban.
• Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh
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