A RENEWED offer of negotiations by the Afghan Taliban, though once again insisting on direct talks with the US rather than the Afghan government, has been made as Kabul faces what could be a growing rebellion in the provinces. Once again, then, the news from Afghanistan is mixed, with both threats and opportunities dominating the political and security landscape.
The offer of talks by the Taliban can be treated with scepticism for several reasons. A difference in approach between hardliners and dialogue-favouring Taliban has long been speculated about, though it has not translated into policy as yet.
Perhaps the Taliban, recognising that US President Donald Trump is opposed to dialogue and prefers a military-led strategy in Afghanistan, has made the offer of talks to sow further confusion and uncertainty among the disparate groups that comprise the Afghan government and its foreign backers.
The spectre of the militant Islamic State group in Afghanistan has also been of concern to the Taliban in recent years and an endless war cannot be in the latter’s interest.
Yet, every realistic assessment and independent analysis of the war in Afghanistan suggests the conflict can only be ended through dialogue. If for whatever reasons sections of the Taliban are once again expressing a desire for dialogue, Kabul and the US should explore the possibility of taking some insurgents off the battlefield by engaging them in talks.
The growing political tension between Kabul and the provinces will undoubtedly make it more difficult for the government led by President Ashraf Ghani to organise a dialogue with the Taliban and to pursue it vigorously, but there is no obvious alternative.
With a second provincial governor, Abdulkarim Khaddam of the northern Samangan province, defying Mr Ghani and refusing to step down, a constitutional crisis may be brewing. Samangan may not have the strategic importance of the neighbouring Balkh province, but the inability of Mr Ghani to resolve the crisis in Balkh and the continuing defiance of Governor Atta Mohammad Noor may encourage other governors to defy Kabul.
Negotiating with the Taliban while on the defensive politically and in terms of security may be especially difficult.
There is, however, no realistic alternative to dialogue. If President Ghani is weak and even the dialogue-seeking factions of the Taliban seek to bypass Kabul, perhaps regional powers such as Pakistan, Iran and Russia should use their influence inside Afghanistan to nudge the Taliban and the Afghan government closer to talks. President Trump is unpredictable, especially over Twitter, but the US State Department and other agencies continue to understand the need for dialogue.
Eventually, an intra-Afghan peace process with significant participation by the US, which remains the largest international actor in Afghanistan, will be needed. Even the slightest of opportunities for dialogue should be fully explored.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2018