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Bloomberg News: US should keep talking to Taliban

August 20, 2018

It’s been nearly a year since President Donald Trump dispatched more troops to Afghanistan and announced his “new strategy” for the 17-year-old conflict there.

The recent attempt by the Taliban to seize the key city of Ghazni is a reminder that Trump’s approach, like that of both his predecessors, has produced, at best, a stalemate. The government controls barely half of Afghanistan’s districts. Pressure on Pakistan hasn’t seriously threatened the insurgents’ safe havens across the border or their ability to conduct high-profile attacks.

There’s little reason to think that more time or more U.S. troops will materially change the situation. But a diplomatic strategy, including direct talks with the Taliban, might — if the administration can conceive it broadly enough.

To its credit, the United States seems to have broached this possibility, by sending a top State Department diplomat to meet with Taliban officials in Qatar last month. This happened after Taliban leaders surprisingly embraced a three-day cease-fire for the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June, demonstrating that they’re open to pausing hostilities under certain conditions and able to get even hardline battlefield units to cooperate. Next week’s holiday of Eid al-Adha offers the opportunity for another cease-fire.

It may also provide an early test of the Taliban’s seriousness about pursuing peace. More will be required. American negotiators need to ensure that the insurgents aren’t simply looking to delegitimize the Afghan government and stir divisions among the country’s ethnic minorities. Both the government and the Taliban still need to figure out how any power-sharing arrangement could support Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy, which has parliamentary elections slated for October.

To buy time for gradual progress, and to set the stage for deeper talks, the United States will have to address frictions with other regional powers that have better ties with the Taliban — and reason to use them against the United States. Iran, for one, is fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate its economy. Russia is unhappy with new U.S. sanctions. And Pakistan is absorbing deep cuts in U.S. military aid, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raises objections to a potential International Monetary Fund bailout that Islamabad desperately needs.

Sure enough, Iran, Russia and Pakistan are all thought to have provided support for insurgent attacks on U.S. forces. And along with China, which is embroiled in a trade war with the United States, they fiercely oppose any permanent American military presence in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, there should be room for some cooperation. China, in particular, has reason to promote stability in Afghanistan, where it’s looking to build a railroad with India that would connect its Belt and Road network to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Pakistan, given its dire economic problems, could use a reset in relations with the United States. And all the neighbors — even the Taliban — share the U.S. interest in eliminating a growing Islamic State movement in Afghanistan.

Building on common interests to support an environment for talks would require the kind of deft bilateral diplomacy the Trump administration hasn’t often demonstrated. To allow the Chabahar connections to move forward, for instance, the United States would need to issue waivers to its Iran sanctions. The administration would need to coordinate its diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan with China, despite the trouble the two countries are having on trade. And to win regional support for any U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, the Trump administration would have to convince Afghanistan’s neighbors that it isn’t interested in setting up permanent bases. Still, it’s worth a try.

Which isn’t to say it would be easy. The Taliban has yet to show any willingness to accept the Afghan government and constitution, renounce violence, or respect the rights of women and minorities — all of which would be necessary for any agreement to hold. That’s all the more reason for the Trump administration to ensure Afghanistan’s neighbors support its fledgling efforts toward peace.

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