Fragile talks to end the war in Afghanistan may soon see a small breakthrough: a face-to-face meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban for the first time since the war began 17 years ago.
An Afghan government delegation arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, where the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan are holding talks with the Taliban — the Islamist insurgent group the US and its NATO allies, in conjunction with the Afghan government, have been trying to defeat since 2001.
Even the possibility of a one-on-one meeting between the two sides is a surprising development, as direct Afghanistan-Taliban negotiations have remained elusive for nearly two decades — in part because the Taliban has refused to negotiate with Kabul.
A State Department spokesperson wouldn’t confirm America’s participation in the talks, despite the many reports detailing US involvement, but did note that “there have been meetings in Abu Dhabi that are a part of efforts … to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue toward ending the conflict in Afghanistan.”
But while some experts are cautiously optimistic, there’s still a strong chance the meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban negotiators won’t happen, leading to some strong denials.
“There is no plan to meet the Kabul administration,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, told reporters on Monday. “There is no possibility of the presence of the Kabul administration in the meeting,” he continued, using a derogatory term for the Afghan government, which it derides as a US puppet with little control outside the capital.
So for now, it seems the US may act at best as a go-between for the two sides. But if even if Afghanistan and the Taliban do meet directly, they must bridge a yawning divide.
The Taliban wants the US to leave Afghanistan before real talks even begin, and so far has only wanted to negotiate with America to make that happen. That would allow the Taliban to possibly regain control of the country, which it had before the US invasion in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The US wants the Taliban to join the Afghan government and share power, even though the group has shown no desire to do so. And Kabul, meanwhile, wants to show progress with the Taliban ahead of elections in April. Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s envoy for the Afghanistan talks, has said he hopes for a deal by then.
Experts disagree on whether to trust the Taliban as a good-faith negotiator and whether current talks may prove fruitful. While some say the prospects for progress are better than at any point in years, in part because the Taliban has adhered to short-term ceasefires. Others remain pessimistic.
“It’s a waste of time,” Daniel Bolger, a retired Army three-star general who served in Afghanistan and has previously said he believes the US already lost the war there, told me. “The Taliban can — and will — wait us out. Any ‘deal’ means nothing. All the Taliban want to negotiate is our withdrawal.”
Afghanistan is getting worse. Talks might make it better.
There’s a good reason not to expect a major breakthrough in talks any time soon: The Taliban are seemingly winning in Afghanistan now.
Last year, terrorists, including ISIS fighters, killed more people in Afghanistan than in any other country. And according to the Global Terrorism Index, about one-fourth of the world’s total deaths at the hands of terrorists happened in Afghanistan. The Taliban has also increased its attacks throughout the country — despite the 14,000 troops supporting the Afghan military — and now controls or influences more people and territory than it has in the recent past.
Two charts from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US military’s independent group that oversees how US tax dollar are spent in the war, show this trend. The first chart, from October 2018, shows that the Taliban and other insurgent groups now control more populated areas than they did in August 2016:
The second, also from October 2018, shows that insurgent groups, mainly the Taliban, control even more districts in Afghanistan than they did in January 2016 — and their influence is growing.
That situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, either: The US now wants the Afghan troops it supports to retreat to urban areas, effectively ceding control of rural communities to the Taliban. The group’s momentum has also unleashed a fierce debate in Washington and Kabul over whether it is seriously open to negotiations to end the war.
Those who claim a peace deal is likely say the Taliban desperately wants the US out of Afghanistan and might make a concession to see that happen. President Donald Trump remains skeptical of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, and may push for an agreement.
But skeptics expect nothing to come of either this week’s or any future negotiations. In fact, some say talks are making the situation worse.
“I don’t think there is an upside to these talks,” Bill Roggio, an expert on Afghanistan at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, told me. “All it does is legitimize the Taliban and delegitimize the Afghan government.”
The biggest problem for US and Afghan government officials now will be to suss out what the Taliban’s true intentions actually are. That may not be an easy task, but it may prove a better option than holding out for a military victory, which has eluded the US for too long.
“It’s definitely worth exploring talks because the war is showing no prospect of being determined on the battlefield one way or another,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, an insurgency expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, told me in August.