WASHINGTON: The United States said on Monday that it was exploring “all avenues” to advance the Afghan peace process, but “it is doing so in close consultation” with the Afghan government. The New York Times reported earlier on Monday that the Trump administration had asked its diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, shifting away from its earlier policy of no direct contacts with the militants.

Later, Gen John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, also confirmed that Washington was ready to hold direct talks with the Taliban. “The United States is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government,” a spokesperson for the US State Department told Dawn when asked to comment on these reports.

“Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government.”

The NYT, however, reported that “the Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban”. The move was “a significant shift in American policy in Afghanistan, done in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war”, the report added.

“Our Secretary of State, Mr [Mike] Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces,” Gen Nicholson told the Reuters news agency in Kabul.

The Taliban have long demanded direct talks with the Americans as they claim that the US-backed government in Kabul did not have the power to consider their main demand: the withdrawal of “all foreign troops from Afghanistan”.

The United States, however, insists that the Taliban must talk to the Afghan government if they want to be included in the peace process.

Washington also insists that it could only play a supportive role in the talks. The statement sent to Dawn did not deny US media reports but said that whatever avenues Washington was exploring for furthering the Afghan peace process, it was done so in consultation with the government in Kabul.

The US media noted that the decision to reach out to the Taliban followed the Eid ceasefire in Afgha­nistan, which allowed Taliban fighters to mingle with Afghan security forces on the streets of Kabul and other cities. The “unprecedented scenes” encouraged officials in both Kabul and Washington to seek direct talks with the Taliban, the reports added.

A recent report by an official US agency, Office of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, points to another factor that might have persuaded Washington to seek direct talks. The report states that while the Afghan government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the Taliban control 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested between the two.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2018