EXCLUSIVE: Trump Administration Exploring Direct Talks With Afghan Taliban
Senior Afghan and Pakistani officials welcome prospective effort to end longstanding conflict
[ISLAMABAD] The Trump administration is willing to hold direct talks with the Afghan Taliban in a bid to reach an elusive political solution to end the seventeen-years-long war.
The message was conveyed to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit last week to Kabul by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Government sources familiar with developments told The Media Line that Ghani welcomed the decision and assured Washington of his cooperation.
The U.S. move is being construed as a tacit acknowledgment of the failure of its “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace plan. In this respect, Ghani has been unable to coax the Taliban back to the negotiating table; this, as the group’s territorial expansion risks negating hard-fought gains by the Afghan army within the context of an ongoing American-led NATO train and equip program.
Taliban commander Khan Wali confirmed to The Media Line that the organization’s central leadership was already communicating with top American officials, adding that “you can expect a breakthrough soon.”
Concurrently, Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, expressed cautious optimism, noting that he had not yet received final confirmation for direct talks. He nevertheless stressed that, “this is what we [the Taliban] have been waiting for.”
Meanwhile, the head of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John W. Nicholson Jr., backed the apparent development. “Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, has said that the United States is ready to hold negotiations with the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces. I’m sure it will help to move the peace process forward,” he told reporters in the Afghan capital.
Nevertheless, and perhaps evidencing the sensitivity and tenuous nature of the matter, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad suggested that Washington would only play a complimentary role in any potential initiative. “The United States is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process.… Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government,” a statement issued to The Media Line read.
The Afghan Taliban has long maintained that it will only hold talks with the U.S. government. In February, after months of escalating attacks, the group reiterated its call for direct negotiations to achieve a “peaceful solution” to the conflict.
The Trump administration’s supposed new policy surprised many in Pakistan, where experts believe that such an approach could bear fruit if pursued purposefully.
“Since the U.S. has been leading the war against terrorism for a long time, it must take responsibility over negotiations with either party to seek a peaceful solution,” Sajad Hussain, Assistant Professor at Pakistan’s Qaid I Azam University and an expert on defense, told The Media Line. “It is indeed a big news.”
Officials with knowledge of the proceedings revealed to The Media Line that the White House has for months been laying the foundation for talks in conjunction with regional leaders.
“Exclusive negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban will probably lead to a quadrilateral process including Afghan and Pakistani representatives,” a senior Afghan government official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the issue.