Is America’s longest war heading to a quiet end? NBC News reported earlier today that Taliban sources claim to have engaged in “indirect negotiations” with the US, primarily through former commanders forced out of the conflict. The talks are fraught with risks, particularly from some surprising sources:
U.S. officials are meeting with former Taliban members amid intensifying efforts to wind down America’s longest war, three of the militant group’s commanders told NBC News.
The talks have occurred in Afghanistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Taliban sources.
One negotiator said Taliban delegations had been joined by “never more than five” Americans for a series of meetings in hotel suites in Doha, Qatar.
Security requires some elaborate precautions to avoid getting smoked out:
Amid concerns about their own safety, the Taliban delegates are taking steps to not be identified by the intelligence services of Russia, China and Arab countries.
“We don’t go to the hotel together,” the negotiator told NBC News. “We never go to the meeting place first. Once they [the Americans] reach the meeting place, then we go there one by one. We use the elevator for some of the floors and then take the stairs out of security considerations.”
It’s curious that they’re more worried about the intel services of Russia and China than American intel. We’re still shooting at them, at least in partnership with the government in Kabul. But then again, the interlocutors in these talks are now largely retired from the battle, and may not want to get identified as potential targets for other purposes.
This might explain why Mike Pompeo was in Afghanistan almost two weeks ago. He only stayed in Kabul for a few hours before departing for the UAE, one of the alleged hosts of the unofficial talks. Assuming that NBC’s sources are correct, it might have reached a stage where Pompeo’s authority was required to approve discussions of certain issues between the Kabul government and Taliban.
But if that’s the case, why didn’t the Taliban seem amenable to a negotiated peace two weeks ago when the Kabul government offered direct talks? Perhaps they wanted to see what they could accomplish by destabilizing elections first:
The Taliban have rejected the Afghan government’s offer of peace talks, another blow to hopes that an unprecedented Eid ceasefire could be a step towards more lasting peace.
Fighting has resumed with full intensity around the country after a brief halt during June. The latest casualties are three children from eastern Ghazni province who were killed by roadside mines at the weekend.
With two rounds of high-stakes elections due within the next year, political tensions are adding to concerns about rising insecurity. Parliamentary elections are due to take place in October. Next spring there will be a presidential vote, with the current leader, Ashraf Ghani, expected to run for re-election.
However, that decision might have left them much more politically vulnerable, thanks to the overwhelming emotional response to the three-day truce, and especially their decision to end it:
The rare days without conflict sparked celebrations and a sense of possibility, alongside a sense of hope that many Afghans had all but abandoned. Taliban soldiers wandered into towns they had attacked for years, where they took grinning selfies with the army and officials who are normally their targets.
“I am 24, and in these years the only thing that I can remember is war and war and war, but during Eid days I saw some moments of joy that I did not see in my entire life,” said Firooz Osmani, a resident of Gozara district in western Herat province. “I cried when I saw Taliban and government officials are hugging and taking selfies, I could not stop my tears. I was really disappointed when I understand that the truce is over.”
Pro-government Afghans who had felt confined to those cities are returning to home villages after long absences. But Taliban commanders were reportedly furious about the impromptu socialising, and worried that the success of the ceasefire could undermine morale.
The Taliban soldiers who participated in the photographs got sent to the front lines as a punishment. That’s likely to have made morale even worse after the fighting restarted, and could be why the Taliban sees the need to explore other options.
Or maybe they’re getting worried about foreign incursions into Afghanistan:
An Afghan official says an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide bomber has killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan, including a Taliban commander. Abdul Qayuom Baqizoi, provincial chief police of northern Sar-i-Pul province, said the attack Tuesday took place as village elders met with Taliban officials in the area.
In northern Afghanistan, Taliban and the have been in recent days. As many as 100 insurgents from both the Taliban and ISIS have perished in recent battles, said Baqizoi.
Provincial council chief Mohammed Noor Rahman said the explosion occurred in a mosque as a funeral was taking place. Reports from regional journalists also spoke of a bombing in neighboring Jawzjan province targeting Taliban elders.
At some point, the Taliban might have to worry about being eclipsed by ISIS and its Sunni Arab leaders — those that remain warmer than room temperature, that is. If they can get a deal from Kabul that allows them some autonomy, they might be able to push off the more radical extremists, but that won’t be possible as long as they’re fighting a war against Kabul and the US at the same time. In fact, ISIS provides everyone else with a shared interest in reconciliation. Perhaps this might be just enough incentive to settle matters and allow us to close out the longest war in our history.