How high a price is the US willing to pay for peace in Afghanistan?

How high a price is the US willing to pay for peace in Afghanistan?
The Taliban and the United States seem to be laying the groundwork for peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, writes Austin Bodetti.
5 min read
26 September, 2018
US Secretary of Defence Mattis meets President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (C) in Kabul [Getty]
After over a decade of will-they-won't-they moments, the Taliban and the United States seem to be laying the groundwork for peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.

For its part, the Taliban has spent that time building diplomatic and military leverage that it hopes to use at the negotiating table.            

This July, American diplomats met with Taliban officials at the insurgents' diplomatic mission in Doha, which the Taliban had opened in 2013 in the hope of conducting negotiations with the US.

This meeting followed a directive from the White House to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban, an outgrowth of US President Donald Trump's long-held desire to withdraw from Afghanistan.

From the Taliban's perspective, the insurgents hold all the cards. In addition to American politicians' eagerness to bring the US's longest-running war to an end, the Taliban has added Russia, a world power, to its roster of allies and won several decisive victories on the battlefield.

Read also: Trump's failures in Afghanistan

In 2015, Russia admitted that it had engaged in intelligence sharing with the Taliban to make common cause against their mutual enemy, the Islamic State group.

American officials have also accused Russia of arming the Taliban since at least 2017. When the Taliban accepted a Russian invitation to attend peace talks in Moscow this month – which the Afghan government and the US declined – Russia demonstrated its ability to influence the Afghan peace process.

The Taliban, meanwhile, proved that its Russian ally can match military aid with diplomatic recognition, a boon for the insurgents.

Complementing the alliance with Russia, the Taliban has expanded its military foothold in Afghanistan. The insurgents made advances in the strategic provinces of Faryab and Ghazni last month, increasing pressure on the Afghan government, which controlled only a little over half the country as of June.

Combined with the insurgents' strength in the south of Afghanistan, these conquests will strengthen the Taliban's hand at the negotiating table once peace talks begin in earnest.

Given the powerful combination of these diplomatic and military successes, the insurgents appear more than confident in their bargaining power in the Afghan peace process.

Read also: Afghan conflict could be deadlier than Syria in 2018: analysts

"If the Americans do not end the invasion through negotiations and do not remove their forces from our country, we will force them to leave and surely bring peace to our country, God willing," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's primary spokesman, told The New Arab over WhatsApp.

The US has other obstacles to consider. The Taliban's patrons include not only Russia but also regional powers Iran and Pakistan, which have their own national interests at odds with the US's.

The insurgents have even established contact with China, another world power that could tip the balance in the Taliban's favour. The insurgents have military and political momentum on their side.

"I cannot say anything officially about peace talks with the US, but the Americans must end this conflict through direct talks with us," said Mujahid. "We are struggling for peace and stability."

The insurgents' representatives at the negotiating table will likely come from the Haqqani Network, a hard-line Taliban faction labelled a terrorist organisation by the US.

The Haqqanis expanded their foothold in the insurgents' leadership after the deaths of Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2013 and Mullah Akhtar Mansour in 2016. Many observers view current Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, himself a hardliner, as little more than a Haqqani figurehead.

On the one hand, the US gained experience dealing with the Haqqanis when it negotiated the release of American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. On the other, this experience proved that the Haqqanis rarely compromise.

The US had to agree to release the Taliban Five, an influential group of Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, in exchange for Bergdahl.

I cannot say anything officially about peace talks with the US, but the Americans must end this conflict through direct talks with us... We are struggling for peace and stability

Even if the Haqqanis decide to negotiate with the US in good faith and the US determines that it can trust them, the two sides will likely struggle to reach a consensus on divisive issues such as the illegal drug trade.

Narcotrafficking – alongside fundraising in the Persian Gulf and taxing Afghans – fills much of the Taliban's treasury.

The US will have difficulty convincing the Taliban to abandon the illegal drug trade, but the superpower that spent decades leading the war on Drugs will also find turning a blind eye to the insurgents' involvement in narcotrafficking a tough sell. Neither option looks good.

As the Taliban and the US weigh how to proceed to the negotiating table, the US must recognise the insurgents' diplomatic and military advantage as well as their vested interests.

Supported by their allies in China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, the Haqqanis will work hard to protect their assets in Afghanistan. They also know that the US is facing pressure from Afghans, Americans, and the international community to participate in peace talks.

A political settlement could very well bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, but the US needs to consider how high a price it is willing to pay.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist specialising in conflict in the Middle East.

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.