Most stakeholders in the latest phase of the war in Afghanistan recognize that the conflict can only end through peace negotiations, and they are calling on their opponents to join them in talks.
But the Taliban and the Afghan government, along with its Western allies — the key parties to the conflict — are at odds over who should be talking to whom.
In their public statements and private posturing, the Taliban are still insisting on holding direct talks with the United States, insisting that only Washington can talk about their primary demand: the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Washington, however, is calling on the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government. Kabul made an unprecedented peace offer to the Taliban last month and now appears to be willing to follow through on its offer.
“Inclusion of the Taliban through a political process in the fabric of society and polity will enable national, international, and regional energies to focus on the threats of terror and criminality,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a high-level diplomatic conference in Tashkent on March 27.
His host, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, was quick to offer help in facilitating direct talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban.
"We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement," Mirziyoev said.
The Taliban, however, were not present at the conference.
Unlike their past practice, the insurgents have not rejected Ghani’s offer by issuing a clear statement and have made some hopeful noises of considering Kabul’s offer to recognize them as a legitimate political party, issue them passports, help open their office, and push for their leaders to be removed from sanctions lists.
Yet the Taliban have quietly reiterated their position that only Washington can negotiate their primary demand of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
“The Kabul regime is under so much influence of American invaders that the first and last words are those of the Americans,” read a March 13 article on the Taliban’s Voice Of Jihad website. “The permission of peace and war are with the Americans.”
In Kabul, U.S. Ambassador John Bass sees such pronouncements as part of the Taliban narrative to continue their violent campaign and refuse talking to fellow Afghans.
“We believe that the Afghan government, as the elected representative of the Afghan people in a series of elections, is the right government, and the right interlocutor, if you will, for the Taliban to be talking to,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Bass says Washington will continue to support Kabul in negotiating with the Taliban. “We’ll continue to support its efforts to compel, if necessary, with military action, or to persuade through other means the Taliban to sit down and talk with the Afghan government,” he said.
Borhan Osman, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that efforts to begin negotiations with the Taliban have yet to surmount the primary hurdle of the Taliban’s reluctance to speak to Kabul and Washington’s reluctance to recognize itself as a party in the conflict and show willingness to negotiate the issue of troop withdrawal.
“Whatever the precise order and form the negotiations take, the United States and the Taliban need to work a way around [this] principal stumbling block,” he wrote. “Without a compromise by both sides, it is hard to see the start of meaningful dialogue.”
Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan-Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department, sees the Taliban’s leadership council pushing for negotiations on its own terms.
“Those terms do not, I believe, have a role for Ghani and his like,” he said while referring to the Ghani-led Afghan national unity government.
Weinbaum says that even the beginning of negotiations is unlikely to quickly translate into an acceptable agreement.
“At best, it’s only the beginning of an excruciatingly long process which in itself bears consequences on both sides for the dynamics of the conflict,” he said.