Time for the Taliban to talk


The campaign for peace in Afghanistan got a big boost last week with 108 Muslim religious scholars from 32 countries calling on the Taliban to renounce violence and come to the negotiating table. Participating in a two-day International Ulema Conference on Afghanistan Peace and Security held in Jeddah and Makkah, they joined more than 200 representatives from 57 countries in drawing the Taliban’s attention to Islamic teachings against the shedding of innocent blood and the suffering and hardship of Afghans in the last four decades.

A 35-member ulema delegation from Afghanistan also took part in the conference, jointly organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Saudi Arabia. The conference was intended to support efforts to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan and condemn terrorism and extremism in all forms and manifestations. The summit coincided with that of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels last week that came out in support of President Ashraf Ghani’s peace initiative.

Unfortunately, the Taliban are yet to positively respond to Ghani’s recent overture for negotiations. The insurgents continue to be obdurate even after a successful but short-lived ceasefire during the Eid holiday in June when, after many years, Afghans caught a tiny glimpse of what a respite from violence might look like for their country. They saw Afghan security forces and members of the Taliban sharing hugs and selfies. They also witnessed the arrival in Kabul of peace activists. The fact that a group that started with eight had grown into 65 by the time they reached the capital after making a long and treacherous journey shows how ordinary Afghans long for peace.

But all efforts to hold negotiations have faltered and died repeatedly because the Taliban have historically viewed post-invasion regimes in Kabul as US “puppets” and spurned negotiations with them, calling instead for direct talks with Washington. They have also insisted that all foreign troops must leave the country before a peaceful settlement can be negotiated. But the Taliban should realize that whether it is the Afghan government or the US who does the talking, everything depends on the terms of the settlement. So the Taliban’s refusal to talk does not make any sense.

They should also think of the suffering of the Afghan people. On average, 66 civilians die each week as a result of the violence. The number of civilian casualties peaked in 2017 and remains on a similar pace this year. All of this should force the Taliban to rethink the strategy they have so far followed, as should the plight of Afghans who had to flee their homes or country because of an endless cycle of blood. If the Taliban continue with this unhelpful attitude, they will lose whatever sympathy they enjoy among the Afghan people.

The conflicting signals from Washington are only making things more difficult. In a televised address to the nation, US President Donald Trump admitted that he had changed his mind about the Afghan war. What he announced was a strategy designed to bomb the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, the insurgents intensified their attacks to gain the upper hand, through force, before coming to the table. This made Trump once again indulge in fighting talk and declare that we have to “finish what we have to finish.”

But Trump should realize that if his predecessors could not “finish what we have to finish” with 100,000 soldiers, he cannot do so with barely a fifth of that number. If anything, the Taliban feel much stronger and more confident now. And security has deteriorated to the point that everything connected with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kabul last Monday had to be shrouded in secrecy.