The Taliban has published an “open letter” calling on the “American people” to urge their government to engage in peace talks — and reminded Americans of the “billions of dollars” that have been spent on the 17-year-long Afghan war. The 2,800-word letter, issued on Valentine’s Day, repeats the Taliban’s offer of direct talks with Washington. The United States government, in no mood to show some love, insists that the Afghan government should lead negotiations with the Taliban.

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Taliban fighters in Farah province, Afghanistan. The letter cites a US watchdog in claiming Taliban control is rising in the country. (Photograph:  The Guardian)

What does the letter say?

In an unexpected overture at a time of increasing bloodshed in Afghanistan, the Taliban have published an open letter expressing a desire for peace talks and calling on the “American people” and “peace-loving congressmen”to pressurize the Donald Trump administration into negotiations.

  • The letter, released by Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, comes amid deteriorating conditions for US and Afghan coalition forces on the battlefield and after a month in which two Taliban assaults on Kabul killed 150 civilians.
  • The Trump administration has sent mixed messages about its readiness to have contact with the Taliban, but it has insisted that all substantive negotiations would have to be led by the Afghan government.
  • For its part, the Taliban refuses to talk to the Afghan government without first discussing the withdrawal of foreign troops with its powerful ally.“If the policy of using force is continued for another one hundred years,” the letter reads, “the outcome will be the same … as you have observed over the last six months since the initiation of Trump’s new strategy.”
  • The 2,800-word letter favours US and UN-produced statistics over apocalyptic threats. In an attempt to persuade the US public that the war is unwinnable it cites the“3,546 American and foreign soldiers”killed, an“87% rise”in heroin production in 2017, and the assessment from the US watchdog the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that Taliban control on the ground has increased significantly.
  • In what appears to be a nod to rising support for the Taliban from Russia and Iran, the statement refers to the “international community” now “backing our justified resistance”. The letter also reminds the American people of the “tens of billions of dollars” spent in Afghanistan “collected from you in tax and revenue” but then given “to thieves and murderers”. Such arguments have an ear in Washington.
  • A spokesperson for the US state department said the Taliban was welcome to join peace talks, but added that the onus was now on the insurgents to end their campaign of violence.“The Taliban statement alone does not show willingness to engage in peace talks. The Taliban’s recent horrific terror attacks in Kabul speak louder than these words,” the spokesperson said. “The Afghan government can only negotiate to end the war if the Taliban are ready. The recent attacks show this is not the case.” There are conflicting views within the US administration, however. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said the US is open to talks with “moderate voices” in the Taliban, which could form part of the Kabul government.

Why is the Taliban writing letters of peace?

The letter is not a cry for negotiations; it is just a reminder to the American people that the war is unwinnable.

  • Michael Semple, a former UN and EU negotiator with the Taliban, suggested the letter said more about the internal politics of the insurgency, between moderates based in Qatar and more hardline elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan.“The Taliban have refused talks with the government of Afghanistan. To legitimise that position, they are putting it out that they are open to talks with the US,” said Semple, who is now a professor at Queen’s University Belfast.
  • Simon Gass, a former NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said: “Although the Taliban have had success on the ground, it has come at a big price in terms of losses. Morale is said by experts not to be great, particularly given the faction fighting which followed the deaths of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour.The encroachment of ISIS is a problem for the Taliban – they may be feeling the heat. The US intention to raise force levels will also discourage them.So this could be a significant move. But it could also be a tactic designed to disarm those in the US who are against any troop increase and to divide the Afghan and US governments.”

It is evident – even without the letter – that there cannot only be a military solution to the Taliban insurgency.

  • A peace process with the Taliban is almost certainly the best way to end the war in Afghanistan as a negotiated settlement is more achievable than a military victory and more desirable than an endless military stalemate.This ongoing conflict is severely affecting reconstruction efforts and increasing the suffering of Afghans. Moreover, it’s making the country unstable and a fragile state, which is helping ISIS and other extremists to increase their local footprints.
  • The Taliban has condemned and countered the ISIS in Afghanistan, which suggests that the group is not allied to the global jihadist outfits that currently pose the greatest threat to Western interests.Hence it is comparatively easier to engage the Taliban in talks as compared to Jihadist outfits of the Middle East, which have global aspirations.
  • One of the main conditions for any peace talks to succeed is the realization that both sides cannot win the war. Both parties, that is the Afghan Government and the Taliban, are aware of this aspect. The Taliban are also feeling pressure from a growing body count and from defectors who have claimed allegiance to ISIS. The Afghan government also realizes that without the support of its foreign allies its security forces can’t tackle the Taliban insurgency on its own.

Note: The Taliban still maintains its representative office in Doha. This political office has authority to negotiate on behalf of its leadership. This office was able to secure the release of five Taliban members from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in 2014, in exchange for American captive Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The starting point of any future peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban can be through this political office of the Taliban.

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The United States now has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.(Photo: Hindustan Times)

When do we understand the reluctance of the Americans?

  • The Taliban has rejected participating in negotiations: The Taliban has frequently resisted formal negotiations with the Afghan government, which the group considers illegitimate, but it has made dozens of public statements on peace and participated in official “track one” talks, as well as civil-society-led “track two” ones, in France, Japan, China, Norway, Qatar, and, Pakistan, where U.S. officials also participated. (The Afghan government, by contrast, has in several cases opposed track two initiatives aimed at paving the ground for more formal talks.) The Taliban’s public statements in recent years have indicated a desire to seek a peaceful resolution, willingness to talk, and assurances that the group poses no threat to minorities in Afghanistan. Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada’s Eid statement in August incorporated Quranic justification for talks and affirmed a desire for a peaceful resolution. Yet there is no credible internationally backed process that offers the group a viable pathway for achieving its political goals.
  • The United States and Afghanistan should fight, then talk: Naturally, the United States seeks to have maximum leverage when entering a political negotiation, but not all parties can have maximum leverage at once, and unforeseen events, such as a truck bomb in Kabul’s diplomatic zone or a political crisis in Kabul, could reduce the United States’ or Kabul’s leverage. The United States should try to weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government while the war continues, but initiating serious negotiations sooner rather than later will allow the United States to gauge the Taliban’s will and intent and to act more effectively if opportunities or crises arise. Developing a negotiating strategy will help clarify for the Taliban — and the region — the United States’ broader political goals. Ultimately, if 140,000 international troops at the height of the surge in 2010–2011 failed to sustainably move the needle, the Taliban’s negotiating decisions probably do not hinge on any battlefield shift that a few thousand troops more than the current eleven thousand could realistically accomplish.
  • The Taliban gave safe haven to al-Qaeda: The Taliban is an Islamic nationalist political movement whose stated goal is the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of a more Islamic government in Afghanistan alone. While it is fighting what it perceives to be a foreign occupation, it would probably welcome a diplomatic relationship with the United States, given U.S. influence in the region and the level of financial assistance Washington currently provides Afghanistan. The Taliban in recent years implicitly distanced itself from al-Qaeda in public statements, disavowed terrorism beyond its borders, and conspicuously failed to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s pledge of loyalty to Taliban leader Haibatullah. Experts assess that the group recognizes the cost of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s provision of safe haven to Osama bin Laden before and just after 9/11, a decision that was challenged unsuccessfully at the time by other senior Taliban officials. The Taliban has condemned and combated the Islamic State in Afghanistan, suggesting that the group is not allied to the global jihadi groups that currently pose the greatest threat to U.S. interests, and it could begin to alleviate U.S. concerns by formally disavowing transnational terrorism.
  • The Taliban should have no hope of winning on the battlefield: The best argument for international troops to remain in Afghanistan is to force a stalemate, but even if the Taliban privately recognizes it cannot break it, there can only be peace if an internationally supported political dialogue offers the group a viable alternative that it does not see as some form of surrender. Leading Taliban experts have assessed that the group remains interested in talks, even as it perceives itself to be making military gains, for several reasons: its gains have come at a significant cost and the movement is weary of fighting, the group craves the international legitimacy it lacked during its 1996–2001 regime, and though the group has briefly overtaken provincial capitals, it cannot hold or govern them. Further, the Taliban’s openness to dialogue over the years appears to have had no relationship to pressure on the battlefield.

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Where are the arguments for talks?

  • The humanitarian toll is rising: Prolonging or escalating the conflict will almost certainly have humanitarian consequences, including an increase in civilian casualties and refugee flows. The United Nations assesses that the number of civilian casualties reached a record high last year since it started documenting civilian casualties in 2009, with 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 wounded. Though the overall number of civilian casualties decreased by 6 percent in the first nine months of 2017 over the same period in 2016, the number of civilian deaths increased. During that period, the United Nations documented a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from Afghan and coalition air strikes compared to 2016. These trends have implications for NATO partners; according to UN and EU statistics, Afghans have been second only to Syrians in seeking asylum in Europe in recent years. If civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces continue to rise, Afghans’ support for increased U.S. operations could fall.
  • NATO partners prioritize peace: NATO allies, who broadly welcomed the South Asia strategy and Washington’s recommitment to Afghanistan, strongly support an Afghan peace process. In many cases, their continued financial and security assistance is based on the presumption that Washington is working toward one. Though international donors pledged more than $30 billion in security and civilian assistance through 2020 at the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit and Brussels Conference, future contributions could taper if donors see no alternative to perpetual war and other international threats supersede the threat from Afghanistan.
  • Regional competition is likely to increase over time: Afghanistan’s neighbors could view U.S. dallying on peace efforts as a sign that a long-term presence is its real goal, and could increasingly use proxies to make its presence more costly. Pakistan continues to offer sanctuary to Taliban leaders, and there have been reports of Russia and Iran providing financial and materiel support to the Taliban. In the diplomatic arena, both China and Russia have showed a growing interest in brokering talks with the Taliban leadership. Uncertainty about U.S. motivations and staying power fuels their hedging behavior, a trend that could accelerate absent effective diplomacy in support of a political process.
  • The Taliban could become more radical: Despite two leadership transitions in two years and reports of increased fragmentation, the Taliban remains a generally cohesive organization. However, a failure to enter into talks with the Taliban while escalating military efforts against the group’s leadership could increase the risk of its fragmentation and radicalization. Hard-line factions may double down on fighting if they perceive the door to talks to be indefinitely closed, making political accommodation more difficult in the long run.

Who is playing negotiator?

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President Donald Trump stands with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during an event to sign an executive order on health care in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, in Washington.(Photo: Washington Examiner)

The Taliban is extending an invitation to Senator Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, to their political office in Doha to discuss possible peace plans to end the 17-year Afghan war.

  • The invitation, proposed on the terror group’s social media accounts under the moniker of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” was extended in response to Paul’s recent comments on the status of the war.
  • “We invite the respectable U.S. Senator Rand Paul, in his official capacity to visit our political office in Doha for mutual talks,” the Twitter post by the Information Committee of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan read. “We’ll prove to Mr. Rand Paul, the immediate US withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring peace to our country and will enhance international security,” the group added in the social media post.

During a recent interview with Fox News, Sen. Paul lambasted Washington’s continued investment in the Afghan conflict, with no clear endgame in sight. “The war in Afghanistan is costing us $50 billion a year… It’s time to come home. There is no military victory there,” Paul said.

How will things proceed?

The United States has not fully exercised it and has missed opportunities to advance political dialogue. Announcing a South Asia strategywas a vital step in conveying the U.S. commitment to the Afghan government and its plan for stabilizing the “eroding stalemate.”Going forward, signaling that the United States is willing to discuss its long-term military presence as part of a political process is the issue most likely to draw the Taliban to the table.

  • There is much more Washington can do to set conditions for a peace process — including naming and empowering senior diplomats, aligning regional powers in support of that goal, and ensuring U.S. policy does not undercut Taliban moderates — all while continuing to fight the Taliban, develop Afghan security forces, and strengthen Afghan institutions.
  • Significant obstacles to launching a peace process remain, and any process is likely to be prolonged and prone to setbacks and spoilers, and involve serious compromise on all sides. But the United States cannot know what is possible until it starts talking.

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After considering all other options, the discussion always reverts to the talk of a political solution. But the irony is such a solution remains as elusive as the military one. How do you have power sharing or coexistence when the Kabul government and the Taliban subscribe to two different political systems? And if instead of sharing it, you divide power by relinquishing the governance of some areas to the Taliban rule, are you not consigning the populations to the Middle Ages?

If they don’t try, they will never know.

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