March 6, 2018
By Michael Kugelman and Nishtha Sharma
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
On February 28, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made an extraordinary peace overture to the Taliban.
The offer is striking in its generosity. If the Taliban accepts the Afghan government and comes to the negotiating table, Ghani held out the possibility of recognizing the group as a political party and letting it open an office in Kabul.
Kabul’s previous attempts at peace have failed. This one probably will too. But making the offer was still the right thing to do.
Ghani is betting on the assumption that with Washington implementing a new strategy that entails intensifying its fight against the Taliban, the group will feel the pressure and be amenable to negotiating an end to the war.
And yet, even if the Taliban is feeling the pressure, it’s not a spent force. It still controls many areas of the country, including some districts to the north and west, far from its traditional strongholds in the south and east. It’s still waging furious offensives against beleaguered Afghan forces. And it’s still staging attacks in highly secured urban spaces.
The Taliban simply doesn’t have an incentive to step off the battlefield. Ending its fight would amount to quitting while it’s ahead.
Additionally, while Ghani wants the Taliban to talk to his government, the Taliban insists it will only talk to the Americans. But the Americans aren’t interested. Washington, like Kabul, wants the Taliban to talk to the government that it seeks to overthrow.
Furthermore, the Taliban insists that foreign forces must withdraw before it agrees to talks. And yet, the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy is all about stepping up the fight. For Washington and Kabul, the Taliban’s precondition for talks is a non-starter.
What would it take for the Taliban to be receptive to peace overtures from Kabul? If it really starts feeling the pressure, and suffers major losses in lives and territory, then maybe it would relent. The problem is that efforts to weaken the Taliban have failed repeatedly, including when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were in place in 2010 and 2011. If 100,000 American troops couldn’t push the Taliban to the negotiating table, it’s unlikely that the less than 15,000 on the ground now will do so.
Additionally, Taliban leaders have recently suggested they’d be amenable to talks if Kabul offered them a sufficiently attractive package – specifically, a 50/50 power-sharing arrangement. But as desperate as Kabul may be for peace, it’s unlikely to agree to cede so much power to an entity that has terrorized the nation for so long.
There’s also an institutional obstacle: The Taliban is an ideologically fractured organization. Its moderate factions may support talks. However, hardline Taliban factions will likely reject them no matter how generous the terms. The Taliban is waging an insurgency against a government it believes to be illegitimate. Laying down arms and recognizing that government would represent a repudiation of its raison d’etre.
Still, Ghani was right to offer peace to the Taliban, and he deserves praise for making such a politically risky move. He extended an olive branch just weeks after the Taliban placed explosives in an ambulance and blew it up in central Kabul, killing more than 100. Many Afghans may be in no mood to negotiate with such monsters. But then again, Afghans are also desperate for peace. Ghani, sensing an opportunity, decided to strike.
So why make a peace offer likely to fall on deaf ears? Because the war can’t be won militarily. Reconciliation may be a remote prospect, but it’s the only viable alternative.
Kabul’s peace offer is also advantageous for America. If the Taliban rejects it, Washington can better justify what may now seem unfathomable: an exit strategy.
Last August, President Trump announced that his Afghanistan strategy would emphasize a conditions-based approach, with no artificial timelines. Many observers interpreted this to mean that the White House was agreeing to an open-ended military commitment.
Imagine if, down the road, the administration concludes that a stepped-up military campaign still isn’t turning the tide of the war and the Taliban still isn’t interested in talks, even when offered generous concessions. These conditions could compel Trump, who has admitted that “my original instinct was to pull out,” to head for the exits.
The risks of withdrawal are immense. Rapid destabilization could facilitate the establishment of new terrorist sanctuaries. And the Afghan government could become a sitting duck in the face of an emboldened Taliban.
But then again, a withdrawal would also meet the Taliban’s precondition for talks.
Leaving Afghanistan may trigger chaos. Or it may usher in peace. We simply don’t know. This uncertainty heightens the risks of withdrawal.