IN an uncharacteristic overture, the Afghan Taliban recently offered the Americans dialogue on ending the 17-year-old war, urging US citizens and lawmakers to mount pressure on the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Amid intensifying bloodshed in much of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabih­ullah Mujahid held out the proposal in an open letter — a 10-page rebuke of the American military campaign, which began in late 2001.

The dialogue offer comes almost a month after two deadly assaults in Kabul claimed almost 200 civilian lives. Conditions for Afghan security forces and Nato-led troops on the battlefield, meanwhile, are fast deteriorating.

The Afghan Taliban’s propaganda has evolved.

The increasingly lethal impact of the armed conflict on civilians can be best gauged from the fact that more than 10,000 non-combatant Afghans lost their lives or suffered injuries in 2017. At least 3,438 people were killed and 7,015 wounded.

The chilling statistics from the UN Assis­tance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office, which may not fully highlight the unspeakable human suffering inflicted on the ordinary people, clearly prove the Taliban are still a force to reckon with.

Even if snubbed by Washington and Kabul, the letter is reflective of a gradual evolution in Taliban’s propaganda war and concurrently represents a struggle between moderates and hardliners within the group. It may also resonate with anti-war Ameri­cans, who genuinely demand better utilisation of their tax dollars.

Objectively speaking, the invitation should demonstrably influence Washing­ton’s new policy for South Asia. America’s positive response to the call for peace parleys would vindicate its claim of seeking a negotiated end to the war and stabilising the region at large.

But the Trump team ostensibly remains in a combative and rejectionist mood. “The Taliban statement does not show willingness to engage in peace talks. Their horrific attacks in Kabul speak louder than these words,” the State Department spokesperson said, rejecting the move as a bluff.

Sticking to its guns, the United States wants the Afghan Taliban to engage with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in discussions on charting a path to peace. However, the insurgent movement is unwilling to talk to a president it views as an American stooge.

While the Taliban brand the unity government as a puppet regime with no authority, US officials appear to be divided on reaching out to the insurgents. For obvious reasons, the divisions spell bad news for the long-suffering Afghans.

Trump is the third successive US president to ramp up the military campaign in the war-devastated country. Without learning from the missteps of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he has ruled out communicating directly with the Taliban.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has hinted at US willingness for talks with what he calls moderate voices in the Taliban. He has also suggested that reconcilable militants could become part of the Afghan government.

By the same token, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan also hopes communication with the Taliban would happen in due course of time. Nonetheless, he has not explained when conditions would warrant such contacts.

Now is the time for hawks in the Trump administration to see the reality that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and peace talks need to be given a fair chance. Despite spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of troops, the US is nowhere close to achieving its objectives.

Terrorist threats persist, Al Qaeda is regrouping and the illicit drug commerce continues to flourish in the country. And that’s why the US should heed the Taliban’s argument: “If the use of force continues for another 100 years, the outcome will be the same.…”

A spike in coalition air strikes notwithstanding, the Taliban control large swathes of the countryside. Undeterred by the heightened bombing blitz, the fighters have effectively foiled Trump’s much-touted strategy to break the stalemate.

Several rounds of fruitless negotiations between Afghan actors have taken place in Pakistan, Dubai, Russia, China and Turkey. But all such attempts have been scuttled by US actions, including the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack.

Regardless of the frustrating outcome of previous meetings, Afghan spymaster Masoom Stanikzai and National Security Advisor Mohammed Hanif Atmar are said to be in backdoor negotiations with representatives of the guerrilla outfit.

Intriguingly, however, the High Peace Council is being kept out of the loop. Given lingering dust-ups in the ruling coalition, neither of the two officials has so far bothered taking the peace panel on board. Even then, the door for reconciliation has been left ajar.

Pursuing an outright victory on the battlefield or bulking up US military resources in Afghanistan is going to be an untenable course of action. But Trump seemingly clings to his illogical position of ‘fight now, talk later’.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2018



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