By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Despite “positive” talks in Qatar in mid-July between US officials and Afghanistan’s Taliban, the insurgents’ massive attack on the strategic city of Ghazni 150 km south of Kabul so soon after them signifies that the Taliban may realize that war is the only solution after all.

Rockets fired on the presidential palace in Kabul soon after Ashraf Ghani’s offer of truce during the Eid holidays again signify how “positive” the talks were. The country is near to being cut in half.

Engaging in dialogue is not in itself a bad idea. After all, 17 years of consecutive, non-stop fighting haven’t produced any better results. Even after what is stretching into two decades of effort, the fact is that the US-led mission in Afghanistan has been unable to build a state that could establish its writ and drive the Taliban and other outfits out of the majority of the territory that they have under their control.

In Fact, no Real State Exists

The absence of a viable state directly fuels the non-state actors. Many believe that such externally supported efforts of “nation-building” will never work in a country like Afghanistan, with its continually melting army. Nor would the idea, reportedly being considered by President Donald Trump, to pull out coalition troops and turn the war over to Erik Prince of Blackwater fame and his gang of mercenaries. (see adjoining story by John Berthelsen)

All previous efforts have only ended up reinforcing the dynamics of ethnic, political and religious conflict. One example would be the growth of the Islamic State right under the nose of US forces, indicating in very strong terms how Afghanistan’s internal fragmentation – the absence of the nation that the US has been trying to ‘build’ – allowed this group to strengthen its presence and start playing havoc.

It is the realization of this very impossibility that perhaps has partly forced the US to change its earlier stance regarding negotiating directly with the Taliban. But some fundamental issues, such as withdrawal of foreign troops, remain deeply contested, leaving minimum to no room for the warring parties to patch up; hence, the war.

Taliban’s latest attacks therefore should have come as no surprise. Yes, they were engaged in talks. No ceasefire was achieved, not so far.

Trust Deficit

Part of the reason talks are not getting the desired level of traction is that there is a huge trust deficit between the US and the Taliban. And while it is the US and their advised Afghan army only that the Taliban are fighting, it isn’t just the US that the Taliban are talking to.

The Taliban have already confirmed their acceptance of a Russian invitation to travel to Moscow to join regional talks on Afghanistan’s future that are likely to exclude the US. In the first week of August, the Taliban were also in Uzbekistan to discuss regional peace and prospects of the withdrawal of “foreign troops.”Previously the Taliban have talked to both China and Pakistan.

The Taliban’s increased diplomatic activity thus shows that they have their own peace plans, and part of this plan is to enhance their regional profile by sending delegations to the neighboring countries to discuss, among other things, the security of their development projects.

Details of the Tashkent visit confirmed that the parties discussed the “current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines.”

The visit took place and the matters of security were discussed with the Taliban despite the fact that relations between Uzbekistan and the US and between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan remain reasonably warm.  This was more than visible when Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov paid a visit to Ghani in Kabul in the month of July.

Uzbek Initiative

Among the projects announced are a free trade zone spread over 3,000 hectares on the Uzbek-Afghan border, a US$500 million railway project to connect Mazar-i-Sharif with Herat (linking northern and western Afghanistan), and the establishment of six textile factories in Afghanistan by Uzbek companies.

Uzbeks, by talking with the Taliban within a month of this visit, don’t seem to have made a u-turn on their Afghanistan policy. On the contrary, this approach to the Taliban indicates a realistic approach to the conflict and its solution based upon a genuine acceptance of the Taliban as a political force as much as a militant one.

On the other hand, it is the very increasing regional acceptability of the Taliban as a political force that has directly made their position vis-à-vis the US a lot stronger despite their medieval approach to society and their ugly treatment of women.

But then this increasing acceptability is also something the US finds difficult to deal with. While the US has accused Moscow of funding the Taliban, the real problem for the US is in the prospects of Moscow stealing the show – returning to a country from 1979 to 1989 had been a military and diplomatic disaster for them – just as Moscow did in Syria, where the US chose only to attempt to bomb Assad out of power instead of talking to him to tackle the Islamic State threat.

Other Regional Actors Appear?

If the US were to continue to just bomb the Taliban, it would certainly allow other regional actors to increase their profile and force the US into a corner. The US, therefore, is talking to the Taliban lest they team up with Russia, China, Pakistan and/or Iran to enforce their peace in Afghanistan and leave the US stunned.

Sensing the military disaster the US is heading towards, talks of privatizing the war to avoid this disaster have once again begun in the US. But privatizing the war would hardly allow the US to achieve its objective of turning Afghanistan into a strategic outpost, watching over the Eurasian heartland. Negotiations and some compromise might give it something.

The Taliban are willing to talk, but the US dilemma is they aren’t talking just to the US. Keeping their options open, the Taliban are making their moves carefully. After 17 years of war, their diplomatic offensive has put the US in as much of a sweat as their non-stop military offensives.