Taliban, stung by escalated U.S. military effort, calls for dialogue

The Taliban in Afghanistan, under pressure from a stepped-up Trump administration military campaign, released a rambling letter to the American people on Wednesday, calling for dialogue to end the prolonged Afghan war.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid released copies of the 10-page document in several languages, detailing what he claimed were Taliban gains and so-called failures of the “illegitimate” U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, which is now in its 17th year.

“If you want peaceful dialogue with the Afghans specifically, and with the world generally, then make your president and the war-mongering congressmen and Pentagon officials understand this reality and compel them to adopt a rational policy towards Afghanistan,” the letter said.

The letter came at a time when the United States has increased the pace and intensity of air strikes in support of anti-insurgent ground and air operations by Afghan forces. The effort is part of President Trump’s new strategy to break the military stalemate with the Taliban, and push them to the negotiating table.

The U.S. has recently sent mixed responses about its readiness to communicate directly with the Taliban. But it has urged that in any substantive talks, the U.S.-friendly Kabul government would have a leading role within the Afghan government.

Taliban fighting positions

Taliban fighting positions (Associated Press)

In the wake of an ambulance bombing at the end of January, an American official, referring to Trump’s statement said, “We don’t want peace talks with the Taliban,” saying the attacks proved the Taliban were not ready to negotiate in good faith.

But the Taliban also vowed to continue the fight if their efforts to establish dialogue weren't taken seriously. American experts on Afghanistan were skeptical.

“We shouldn't overstate the importance of this letter. It may be a case of the Taliban trying to earn some legitimacy and goodwill by playing the role of good guy and proposing nonviolent solutions,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior analyst for South Asia at the Wilson Center, in Washington. “At the end of the day, the Taliban has no incentive to propose talks unless it's starting to feel major pressure on the battlefield. Though U.S. forces have ramped up their fight, I think it's too early for the Taliban to suddenly conclude it's not worth fighting anymore."

Kugelman said the Taliban offer could nonetheless be useful to the Trump administration. "Even if the letter is just a bluff, and I assume it is, the White House can say -"Look, our strategy is already paying off."

A spate of bombings last month in Kabul fueled anger against the Taliban across the country, and prompted the Trump administration to close the doors for peace talks with the Islamic insurgents.

Taliban fighters

Taliban fighters (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

But the Taliban knows Trump doesn’t want the U.S. to be in Afghanistan. The Taliban will be banking on the belief the U.S. and the West have lost the will to remain there.

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In a recent visit to eastern Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, who commands the U.S. and NATO’s Resolute Support mission in the Afghanistan, said the intensified U.S. offensive is producing results.

“The success of the Afghan operations around the country, supported by Resolute Support and U.S. forces, have caused the enemy high casualties everywhere. This has caused them to stop their attempts to seize provincial capitals, to stop trying to cease districts,” Nicholson said.

There have been varying estimates of how much control and influence the Taliban has across the country. It’s hard to settle on the most accurate estimate, but this much is clear: The Taliban has undoubtedly increased the amount of territory where it has a deep footprint, including in areas in the country’s north and west, far from its traditional strongholds in the south and east.

"Presumably the Taliban knows the territory that it has won, and the government knows the territory that it has lost," said Peter Galbraith, a former United Nations' Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with law enforcement officials on the MS-13 street gang and border security, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with law enforcement officials on the MS-13 street gang and border security, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)