As the Taliban continue to make sweeping gains throughout Afghanistan, the prospects of the country’s deepening conflict being resolved through negotiations become ever more remote.
When the idea was first mooted of Washington agreeing to withdraw its remaining military forces from Afghanistan, it was done so with the aim of persuading the main warring parties to negotiate peace terms.
Thus, when then US president Donald Trump’s administration reached an agreement with the Taliban last year to commence the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, it was done on the basis that the militant group would make serious efforts to negotiate peace terms with the democratically elected government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
But while Mr Trump pressed ahead with the troop withdrawal, critics of the deal raised concerns that the Taliban were not seriously interested in negotiating, and were merely biding their time before the removal of foreign troops had been completed before renewing its campaign to seize the country on the battleground.
And, judging by the rapid advances the Taliban have made in recent weeks following US President Joe Biden’s announcement that American combat operations would cease next month, there is precious little indication that the group has any serious interest in the peace talks currently taking place in Doha, Qatar.
According to the latest US defence estimates, the recent gains achieved by the Taliban, which has seen the insurgents capture 10provincial capitals during a blitz across northern Afghanistan, means there is now a realistic prospect of the group seizing control of the country by force.
US intelligence chiefs now predict that, at the Taliban’s current rate of progress, Kabul could be cut off from the rest of the country within a month, and overrun within three.
This is a stark contrast to Washington’s assessments only a month ago that the Afghan army could hold key areas of the country for at least a year after the withdrawal of foreign troops.
But even though there has been an alarming deterioration in the Afghan government’s prospects for survival, Mr Biden has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of reviewing his decision. Speaking to reporters at the White House earlier this week, Mr Biden said he did not regret his decision to withdraw US forces, and instead called on Afghanistan’s leaders to unite and “fight for their nation”.
But while Mr Biden has repeatedly warned the Taliban against choosing military force over a negotiated settlement, all the indications suggest the Taliban’s strategy is to seize territory until the Afghan government submits to their terms.
That certainly appears to be the case in Doha. During the latest round of negotiations that began earlier this week where, far from being in a mood to compromise, Taliban delegates have been demanding that Mr Ghani’s government steps down before the talks can move forward.
The Taliban certainly seems to be paying little attention to demands from the US and other major powers, such as Russia and China, that are involved in the Doha talks not to pursue a military solution to the conflict.
Speaking ahead of the resumption of talks in Doha earlier this week, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the Trump administration’s original withdrawal agreement with the Taliban and continues in his role, insisted the US was still committed to finding a negotiated resolution of the conflict. “We are always looking for ways and means to help accelerate the negotiations because we don’t see a military solution to the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “There must be a political solution, a political agreement for a lasting peace.”
Yet, to judge by the Taliban’s conduct in recent weeks, their interest in a negotiated settlement appears to diminish by the day, a trend that appears to have characterised their approach to the negotiations from the outset.
Even though the Taliban made a commitment to enter talks with the Afghan government in the agreement they signed with the Trump administration last year, their primary concern at the outset apparently was to secure the release of around 5,000 Taliban fighters before entering negotiations.
The prisoner release was finally realised last September when, under intense pressure from Washington, the Afghan government agreed to the move, with the result that many of the former prisoners are now playing a leading role in the Taliban’s nationwide offensive against the beleaguered Afghan security forces.
For example, the Taliban commander who is leading the attack on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province and the former headquarters of British forces, has been identified as one of the prisoners released in the US-sponsored deal.
Certainly, the determination of both the Trump and Biden administrations to end America’s 20-year involvement in the Afghan conflict has encouraged the Taliban to believe that Washington has no serious interest in pursuing a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and is solely interested in ending its military involvement, irrespective of the consequences.
In a statement issued by the Taliban before the latest round of talks in Doha, the organisation said that it remained committed to the negotiating process, and did not want it to collapse. Events on the ground in Afghanistan, though, tell a different story.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National