Is US pressure pushing Taliban toward peace?

Is US pressure pushing Taliban toward peace?
Is US pressure pushing Taliban toward peace?. picture-alliance/dpa/Noorullah Shirzada
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In an unusual move, the Afghan Taliban issued a letter Wednesday directly addressing the "American people," urging them to put pressure on their government to withdraw from conflict-stricken Afghanistan. The letter was addressed to "the American people, officials of independent non-governmental organizations and the peace loving Congressmen."

The insurgent group said they want to put an end to the seemingly unending war by engaging in dialogue. But the jihadists warned that they "cannot be subdued by force" and that their willingness to seek peace did not mean they were exhausted or their determination to fight had been sapped.

In the letter, the Taliban once again justified the continuation of their armed campaign by presenting themselves as "the representatives of the will of Afghan nation" and reiterating that the "imposed government" in Kabul is corrupt and illegitimate.

"This letter is a unique move by the Taliban. It is the first time the group has expressed its willingness to engage in peace talks and has called on the people of the United States to push their government to work on a mechanism for peace with the Taliban," said Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a Kabul University lecturer and an expert on the Taliban.

But the Afghan government dismissed the Taliban offer, saying that "they are the reason behind the continuation of war in Afghanistan."

"If the Taliban have true faith in peace, they should put an end to their fight and, like the Hezb-e-Islami [party] join the Afghan peace process," Shah Hussain Murtazawi, spokesman for the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told DW. Hezb-e-Islami is the only Afghan militant outfit so far that laid down arms and joined mainstream politics.

The Taliban letter comes after US President Donald Trump last month ruled out any such talks.

Trump's resolve against the Taliban

At the end of January, following a series of deadly attacks, Trump said he did not favor talks and that his administration would "finish what we have to finish" in Afghanistan. As part of his Af-Pak policy, Trump has also put more American boots on the ground in the war-torn country and ordered an increase in airstrikes and other assistance to Afghan government forces.

The Taliban responded in kind, by staging a series of vicious attacks that killed and injured hundreds of innocent Afghans.

Observers in Afghanistan see the latest move by the Taliban as a reaction to increased US airstrikes against the group and pressure on Pakistan to take action against extremist outfits operating from its soil. "The Taliban are aiming to ease the pressure on Pakistan and buy time against the US airstrikes in Afghanistan," Yonus Fakur, a Kabul-based political analyst, told DW.

But Washington is unlikely to change its policy based on this letter alone, he said. "The US will only consider talking to the Taliban if it sees real change in the security situation on the ground."

The current state of Afghanistan, though, inspires little hope on that front. The United Nations said Thursday that over 10,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in violence last year, with militant bombings responsible for inflicting a major proportion of the casualties.

Worsening security situation

2018 also did not start on a positive note for the nation. Many Afghans believe the attacks they witnessed in January mark only the beginning in the latest bout of violence.

Despite talk of groups like the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) spreading their footprint in the country, the Taliban remain the most vigorous militant outfit in Afghanistan and control significant chunks of territory in their strongholds in the nation's south and east.

The Taliban also pose the most serious challenge to Kabul's authority, although at this point of time they seem unlikely to topple the Afghan government. Their resilience casts a dark shadow over the ability of the Afghan army and police to ensure security and government's territorial control.

Afghanistan's security forces have made great strides over the past decade, but they continue to be afflicted by a wide array of issues such as graft, combat-related incapacities, drug abuse and desertions. The problems have exacerbated their inability to effectively counter the insurgency.

Against this backdrop, 2018 "will be a violent year for Afghanistan if there are no peace talks," Zaland said, pointing out that all sides involved in the war have pledged to increase their attacks.

"Increased US bombings will definitely cause casualties among the Taliban but there will also be a high number of civilian casualties, which will lead to more unpopularity of the Afghan government and its international allies."

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However, referring to the recent spate of attacks and bombings, President Ashraf Ghani's spokesperson, Murtazawi, underscored that "doors toward peace negotiations won't be open for groups which commit crimes and claim responsibility for them."

"It is the formal policy of the Afghan government toward the Taliban," he said.

Can Germany play a role in peacemaking?

Analysts say the Afghan peace process is currently going through a very complicated phase because all sides are committed to continue their military campaigns. "But the people should put pressure on their governments to work for peace," stressed Kabul University lecturer Zaland.

International pressure may also help to nudge the peace process forward, some argue. "Afghans expect Germany and other members of the European Union to help create a path toward peace in Afghanistan," said Zaland.

Kabul-based analyst Fakur, though, shares a different opinion. "I don't think Germany or the EU can play any major role at this stage because the ongoing war is between the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government," he told DW. "Berlin could play a role once all sides agree to engage in talks; by hosting the talks, for example."

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