A little over a month and a half after delegates at the trilateral Beijing conference on Afghanistan made a strong pitch for inclusive dialogue, the Afghan Taliban reached out to the US government and offered to engage in political negotiations to end the 17-year conflict. The Taliban overture came days after news began filtering through last week about back-channel discussions between representatives of the militant group and the Afghan government — a fierce opponent of dialogue with the Taliban.
Odd though it may sound, the group has been showing a rare, previously unseen flexibility in its approach towards the stalemate. Such flexibility is as refreshing as it is a political gamble and if accepted in all earnestness a way could be found out of the Afghan quagmire. Still it represents quite a challenge to the Americans who have stepped up air strikes targeting the group’s members in retaliation for deadly Taliban attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. At this juncture it is important for the Americans to realise that they, together with the Afghan forces, cannot win the war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration’s plan for a more robust strategy of aggression against the Taliban is unlikely to succeed — especially considering the fate of previous US surges.
Neither the Americans nor the Afghan forces have the wherewithal to dislodge the Taliban from its position of strength in the country — large swathes of territory are in the control of the militant group. In these circumstances dialogue is the only viable option to end the conflict and bring durable peace. Such a process has fairly wide backing in the region with Pakistan, China and Russia firmly arguing in its favour.
The argument against talks with the Taliban is based on distrust: the insurgency has already claimed the lives of a number of civilians. To establish the constituency of peace, it is important that all sides shun violence as a tactic of war. But that is possible only when there are confidence-building measures in place as well as a broad understanding of the rules of engagement in such a process. The Taliban — which is probably eyeing a seat in government or a power-sharing arrangement — needs to enter mainstream politics if it wants to clinch its goals.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2018.
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