KABUL — President Trump calling off the talks with Taliban insurgents on Sept. 7 has, at least for now, quashed hopes of imminent agreement between the United States and the Taliban. The two sides had appeared to be on the brink of a deal that might have paved the way for talks among the insurgents, the Afghan government and other Afghan power brokers. The agreement could have been Afghanistan’s first significant step toward peace in a generation.
In his tweets calling off the talks, Mr. Trump cited the death of an American soldier as evidence that the Taliban were not negotiating in good faith. The insurgents’ strikes in towns and cities exact a high civilian toll. Though they claim otherwise, they are pursuing a brutal war of attrition, hoping to grind down morale among Afghan troops and to show they can outlast the American military.
Even so, Mr. Trump’s reason to end talks makes no sense: The United States shares responsibility for increased violence.
An intensification in American bombing raids — the United States flew more raids in 2018 than during any previous years of the war and is on track to do the same in 2019 — and offensives by Afghan forces have occurred in parallel. While Taliban attacks on urban centers remain more visible, the attacks by American and Afghan government forces on rural Afghanistan, which have caused enormous suffering, remain largely hidden. Few report casualties to the authorities or the media.
The day after the talks were called off, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that pro-government forces had killed 1,000 insurgents in the previous ten days. A flurry of night raids and aerial bombings by American and Afghan forces in the first half of 2019 led the United Nations — which collects the best available data on the conflict — to conclude that the number of civilians killed by pro-government forces exceeded those killed in Taliban attacks for the first time since they starting tracking these statistics in 2009.
Even as American and Afghan officials say their intensified military pressure was provoked by the Taliban’s attempts to seize major cities, the United States military also declares that airstrikes and an escalating campaign can either coax the Taliban into compromise or fracture it. Both their and the Taliban’s strategies have failed, even as the toll on Afghan civilians and society mounts.
In a way, the argument put forth by many in the United States — including by Mr. Trump himself — that Taliban violence is incompatible with peace talks mirrors one that has been made by the Taliban themselves.
Indeed, having spent years tracking the Taliban’s public and internal debates, what surprised me was that it was America rather than the Taliban that pulled out of talks over the mutual escalation in violence.
Given the uptick in violence, at several points during the talks Taliban leaders struggled to resist pressure from their rank and file to stop negotiating. Taliban leaders pressed ahead believing the talks could yield an agreement on the departure of foreign forces, one of their main aspirations.
Direct talks between American officials and Taliban leaders throughout this year have done nothing to diminish violence. Even as the two negotiating teams appear to have moved toward agreement on a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops and for the Taliban preventing the use of Afghanistan as a base by international terrorists, levels of bloodshed have risen.
Airstrikes and offensives by the American and Afghan government forces on one hand, and Taliban offensives and attacks on the other, have increased at the same rate as progress in the negotiations. This is hardly unique to Afghanistan: Violence is often used to gain negotiating leverage ahead of peace talks.
American diplomats have pressed for a cease-fire during talks. But Taliban leaders reject the idea, reluctant to jeopardize their military capability, which they see as their main source of leverage in reaching a deal with the United States not only on the withdrawal of foreign forces but also a wider settlement reached among Afghans enabling the Taliban to become part of a new political order. They may fear that the insurgency’s ranks, once the fighting stops, would be hard to fire up again.
At least some Taliban commanders who had been prepared to give talks the benefit of the doubt now discreetly reproach their envoys for wagering too much on the United States and failing to consider what they now see as American unreliability.
But the door has not closed shut. President Trump still has a historic opportunity to help end America’s longest war. Both the Taliban and Washington want the American military presence in Afghanistan to wind down. It will be important that any deal the United States makes should focus not just on conditions for troop withdrawal but also on laying the ground for successful intra-Afghan talks. American diplomats must subsequently vest as much effort in supporting those talks as they have in trying to secure the bilateral deal.
Ideally, the Taliban would agree to a mutual cease-fire that eases the suffering of Afghans in both urban and rural areas. In reality that is unlikely to happen. But citing insurgent violence to justify ending talks overlooks the escalated American military campaign — and is a recipe for either an endless American presence or for a withdrawal without concessions from the Taliban in return.
The sooner American diplomats get back to the table the better.
Borhan Osman is a senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.