Parwiz Parwiz/REUTERS Afghans celebrate a ceasefire with the Taliban in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, June 2018

The Taliban’s Battle Plan

And Why It’s Unlikely to Succeed

Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States’ envoy for Afghan reconciliation, has breathed new life into attempts to conduct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Having met with Taliban representatives in Qatar and lobbied leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Khalilzad now says he is “cautiously optimistic” about reaching a peace deal by April of next year.

Yet as far as Taliban leaders are concerned, the group has little reason to commit to a peace process: it is on a winning streak. The Taliban control key Afghan highways and are conducting targeted assassinations across the country. They have made important territorial gains and now have complete or partial control over some 250 of about 400 districts.

These gains are not sufficient to pose an existential threat to an Afghan government with U.S. backing, but they have emboldened the Taliban to keep fighting, in the hope of eventually eroding U.S. resolve. Even if Khalilzad manages to bring the Taliban to the table, don’t expect his efforts to produce a lasting peace anytime soon.

 

SO MUCH WINNING

On the surface, the balance of power in Afghanistan appears to be shifting in the Taliban’s favor, especially since their annual spring offensive began in April. The insurgents billed the military operation—which they named “Al Khandaq,” after a historic battle fought by the Prophet Muhammad—as a campaign to “crush, kill, and capture” invading U.S. forces and their allies while avoiding harm to civilians. They dismissed the Afghan government as a corrupt U.S. stooge and, in a bizarre twist, claimed that enemy-controlled areas hosted “secret centers for obscenity.” For all that, the Taliban reiterated their “policy of peaceful negotiation,” with the proviso, of course, that the United States was deliberately “sabotaging all chances of peace” by keeping its forces in the country. 

As far as Taliban leaders are concerned, the Al Khandaq military campaign has been a smashing success. Government security forces had promised a major push of their own for 2018, but the insurgents

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