For the last six months, Afghanistan has felt the stirring of something rare: if not peace, then the promise of its pursuit. President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban into negotiations without preconditions in February. Islamic scholars and Afghanistan’s neighbors rallied behind that offer in the subsequent months, while sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations broke out across Afghanistan, calling for an end to the country’s chronic conflict. For the first time in 40 years, the warring parties observed a nationwide cease-fire over three jubilant days in June.
The vital question throughout this period has been whether the Taliban insurgency is actually open to making peace. The group has sent mixed signals this summer—agreeing, on one hand, to the June cease-fire, as well as restarting direct talks with the United States, but all the while continuing its years-long refusal to negotiate with what it calls the illegitimate Afghan government. The Taliban did not formally accept a second cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday in August, and the intensity of its military campaign has hardly flagged. What, then, does the Taliban ultimately want, and is its leadership sincere about peace talks? My own conversations with people close to, and in contact with, Taliban political figures in recent months suggest that there is a genuine, if temporary, opening for peace.
A NEW FLEXIBILITY
Since the fall of its regime in 2001, the Taliban has consistently proclaimed two fundamental objectives: it wants foreign troops out of Afghanistan and an Islamic government restored to power. For years, these demands were almost entirely rigid. In recent years, however, the Taliban’s agenda has evolved, such that compromise is now conceivable.
In meetings with foreign visitors and non-official Afghans, Taliban political figures now privately say that they merely need a “timetable” for U.S. troops to withdraw. This timetable’s duration can be flexible and might not end in a complete U.S. withdrawal. Some Taliban members say the group is even open to a “conditional” withdrawal, in which the United States
Loading, please wait...