Faced with a resurgent ISIS threat and emboldened by recent gains on the battlefield, two senior Taliban field commanders suggested they are open to peace talks with the Afghan government after 17 years of war.
The highly unusual conciliatory words come as Pentagon officials and new US leadership in Afghanistan also focus on seeking peace with the Taliban, switching their military efforts to destroying ISIS’ Afghan franchise, the so-called Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K).
ISIS-K is seen as the most dangerous potential threat to US and other Western security evolving in Afghanistan.
US defense department officials said that while the Taliban continued to be a source of instability, it was unlikely to pose any kind of international danger.
“It’s ISIS and al Qaeda we should be going after,” said one US officer, who did not want to be named.
There is a strong view in the US’ defense and intelligence departments that its forces should not pull out of Afghanistan until the threat from ISIS has been eliminated — and a fear that the entire Afghan operation, involving about 15,000 US troops and costing an estimated $45 billion this year, risked being shut down on a whim by the Trump administration.
“We’re one tweet away from Trump saying, ‘That’s it — it’s over,’ and that would be very dangerous for the US. It could bring the world a terrorist superstate,” said one senior US officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This uncertainty has created anxiety over the US’ involvement in Afghanistan as it approaches 17 full years of war, as civilian deaths are at the highest level since the United Nations started keeping records 10 years ago, and as the Taliban appears to be dominating the battlefield with a string of short-term successes, including almost overrunning Ghazni, roughly 130 kilometers south of the capital Kabul.
Some comfort for the US and its Afghan government ally can be derived from a growing split within the ranks of the Taliban. An unusual agreement between the Taliban and coalition is that ISIS-K is the greatest, and shared, enemy.
In response to questions from CNN, Taliban commanders in Herat, northwestern Afghanistan, said they would fight to rid the country of all foreign influences but that fighting among Afghans was fruitless.
“Peace negotiations should be among Afghans and by Afghans. We should not wait for Pakistan, Iran, Russia or America to bring peace in Afghanistan. We have lost many young Afghans. We have orphans, we have widows — if people from government die they are Afghans. If Taliban die they are Afghans,” said Mullah Sher Agha, one of the commanders.
His comrade, Mullah Abdallah Khan, signaled a similar openness to the idea of talks, saying: “Fighting doesn’t have any result except destroying both sides.”
They both answer to Mullah Mohammed Rasool, who split with the Talibs of eastern Afghanistan because, his supporters said, they get support from foreign countries like Pakistan.
Taliban factions control a relatively small percentage of Afghanistan, according to US Special Inspector General for Reconstruction. About 56% of the country is under government control but a third is “contested.”
Those figures relate to the situation at the end of last year, and the scale of Taliban successes means that contested areas are likely to have expanded.
This may explain why Taliban leaders on the battlefield are feeling confident enough to raise peace talks.
Talks are seen as a strategic necessity by many US commanders who no longer stick to the argument that the Taliban can be defeated militarily.
“You don’t need to keep killing your fellow Afghans. You don’t need to keep killing your fellow Muslims. The time for peace is now,” said the outgoing US commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General John “Mick” Nicholson, to the Taliban in a valedictory speech in Kabul on Sunday.
“The entire world is encouraging you to accept the offer of a ceasefire and enter into peace talks. Most importantly, the Afghan people are asking you to settle your differences peacefully. Whose voice is more important? The outsiders who are encouraging you to fight? Or the voice of your own people, who are encouraging you to peace?”
Back-channel efforts made by, among others, the US and Russia, to bring the Taliban and the Afghan government to the negotiating table have been going on for months.
These efforts will get a fillip from support among the battlefield commanders who now believe that ISIS-K is the top priority.
“Our enemy is first ISIS, then the government,” Khan said.
He will draw some satisfaction, then, from the US confirmation that a senior ISIS-K leader, Abu Sayed Orakzai, and 10 of his followers were killed in an American airstrike 10 days ago.