How the US and Afghanistan can jump-start talks with the Taliban

Reduction in violence is a key prerequisite for the Afghan government and the Taliban to sit at the negotiating table.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 25, 2019 [File: Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin]

On May 23, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. The Afghan government immediately announced its intention to reciprocate. The truce brought a brief but desperately needed respite from the country’s relentless violence.

It also delivered a big boost to a US-Afghanistan relationship that had been in a precarious state because of diverging positions on a floundering peace process. With the relationship now on a more level footing, Washington is in a better position to work with Kabul to help launch peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban – a core but elusive US goal.

A horrific May 12 attack on a maternity ward in a Kabul hospital had exposed a growing disconnect in US-Afghanistan relations.

For Afghans, the attack was the last straw following a surge in militant violence in previous weeks, with much of their anger directed at the Taliban. National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib tweeted that if the Taliban “cannot control the violence … there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’.” President Ashraf Ghani announced Afghan forces were shifting from a defensive to an offensive position against the Taliban. And Kabul suggested the Taliban was complicit in the attack.

Washington reacted very differently. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “the ongoing peace process continues to present a critical opportunity for Afghans to come together” to combat terror. Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, tweeted that there could be “no more excuses” for not pursuing talks. Washington blamed ISIL (ISIS) for the attack, and called on the Taliban and the Afghan government to work together to track down the perpetrators.

In effect, Washington was urging Kabul to redouble efforts to pursue a peace process that the Afghan government had temporarily put on hold. By May 19, fighting was reported in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

It is easy to understand what drove this disconnect. The US government badly wants Afghanistan to start a peace process that a US-Taliban agreement – signed nearly three months ago – was meant to set in motion. Two factors account for Washington’s urgency. One is a desire to ensure Afghanistan does not squander its best opportunity yet to end a nearly 19-year war. The other is US politics.

It is an election year, and the Trump administration is committed to bringing troops home. It is easier for President Donald Trump to depict the withdrawal as an honourable exit – and harder for his rivals to denounce it as an abject surrender – if peace talks are happening as American soldiers head for the exits.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, speaking on the day of the hospital attack, bluntly expressed Washington’s thinking: “It’s now time for the Afghan people to get together to enter into a meaningful peace process and it’s time for America to come home.”

Washington’s you-need-to-make-peace-and-we-need-to-leave message came across as tone-deaf in a nation in no mood to sit down with violent actors so long as militants continued to perpetrate violence – including attacks on two mosques on May 19 – that had surged since the signing of the US-Taliban deal.

The accord – concluded after months of negotiations that excluded Kabul – does not require the Taliban to reduce violence.

The risk of a diplomatic crisis is real, thereby jeopardising the sensitive diplomacy that Washington must undertake with Kabul to help guide it towards peace talks.

The Eid ceasefire, however, restored some stability to the US-Afghanistan relationship. Kabul’s reciprocation of the Taliban’s unilateral truce proves it is prepared to step off the battlefield – Washington’s fervent preference – under the right circumstances.

The truce also underscores Kabul’s underlying position: We are ready for peace if the other side shows it is ready for peace. Indeed, a Taliban commitment to reduce violence – similar to the one it made with US negotiators prior to signing the deal with Washington – would likely bring Kabul to the negotiating table. In fact, Ghani’s decision to resume offensives against the Taliban earlier this month may have been meant in part to pressure the insurgents into making such a commitment.

To this end, it is time for Washington and Kabul to undertake a full-court press to compel the insurgents to agree to a longer ceasefire or reduction in violence.

It is an admittedly ambitious task, given the leverage the insurgents derive from deploying violence, but it is essential to do it.

The Afghan government has already done its part. On May 17, Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, signed a power-sharing deal. It ended a spat that had precluded the launch of peace talks. Kabul has also agreed to release Taliban prisoners – including 2,000 following the Taliban’s Eid ceasefire announcement – which was part of the US-Taliban deal.

It is now time for the Taliban to make a major concession.

Washington and Kabul should pull out all the stops to compel the Taliban to commit to lessen or pause its violence. They should partner on a broad global outreach effort that leverages each of their diplomatic comparative advantages. Washington should draw on its cordial ties with Riyadh and Islamabad to get these two key Taliban influencers to apply pressure on the insurgents.

Kabul should press Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran – bitter rivals of Washington that have nonetheless partnered with both Kabul and the Taliban to help advance peace and reconciliation – to do the same.

Meanwhile, Washington should threaten to halt any further troop withdrawals, beyond the initial roughly 4,000 called for in its agreement with the Taliban, until the insurgents agree to curb violence.

Getting the Taliban to agree to the violence-reduction demand is arguably the only thing now preventing the start of talks. It is time for Washington and Kabul, now on the same page after the Eid truce, to make it happen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.