As another fighting season draws to a close in Afghanistan, reports of talks in Doha between representatives of the government and the Taliban have raised the tantalising prospect of a negotiated settlement to the war.
The fact that talks took place at all is significant, because they represent the first political engagement with the Taliban since the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the insurgent group’s leader in May.
His predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was killed that month in a United States military drone attack in western Pakistan because he had refused to accede to the peacemaking efforts of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which includes the governments of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States.
Parallel to the two reported meetings in Doha with the Afghan intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai and an unidentified American representative, the Taliban’s Qatar-based envoys have also lobbied governments on either side of the Arabian Gulf to allow them to open further representative offices.
Those engagements reflect the Taliban’s desire to be viewed as a legitimate entity, rather than as a terrorist group, and to keep the group’s political options open. However, events leading to the talks in Doha strongly suggest that they should not be construed as a preamble to substantial peace talks.
The meetings were preceded by the arrest of several members of the Taliban’s cabinet-in-exile by the Pakistani authorities, reflecting the heavy diplomatic pressure they have been under from the US. That element of duress may have been a factor in the Taliban leadership’s distancing of itself from the Doha talks, following which Taliban negotiators have travelled to Pakistan to seek the release of their detained colleagues.
If, indeed, the talks were sanctioned by Mr Akhundzada, there were likely a political ploy aimed at reducing diplomatic pressure on the Taliban and their Pakistani hosts.
Otherwise, the Taliban has no real reason to negotiate. Its military successes over the two summers since Nato forces were withdrawn from combat operations have exposed the Afghan security forces as a weak opponent.
The Taliban’s successes in 2015 were due in part to the element of surprise. Nobody expected the insurgents to launch attacks on multiple fronts or to attempt to seize a major urban centre such as the northern city of Kunduz, however briefly.
This year, however, it was obvious that the Afghan security forces would come under renewed pressure in the north and south. To that end, the US and its Nato allies postponed the repatriation of their troops and provided trainers to help the Afghans prepare. Special forces and airpower were also made available to aid them on the battlefield.
Nonetheless, the Taliban has been able to seize control of most of southern Helmand province and government forces have been preoccupied with preventing the fall of Lashkar Gah, the administrative headquarters.
That enabled the Taliban to use rural areas of Helmand as a staging post to expand operations into neighbouring provinces, advancing into Uruzgan province to lay siege to the administrative centre of Tarin Kot.
Similarly, the insurgents have used rural areas of Kunduz province to increase pressure on urban centres in northern Afghanistan, culminating earlier this month in the seizure of parts of Kunduz city, for the second time in 13 months. As in Helmand, the preoccupation of government forces with re-establishing control of the city has enabled the Taliban to expand into the rural areas of nearby provinces.
In the circumstances, it would be wholly unreasonable to expect the Taliban to succumb to diplomatic pressure when they have no incentive to do so.
This is not the type of insurgent group that decides to call it a day and come to the negotiating table,” says analyst Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.
Likewise, Pakistan has no reason to take any further punitive measures against the Taliban, because “they are extremely risky, especially in terms of the potential blowback”, says Arif Rafiq, a fellow at the Centre for Global Policy.
“The question isn’t who has influence over the Taliban, but rather could even the best influencer get the Taliban to go all in on peace negotiations and a peace deal? I think the answer is no,” argues Kugelman. Instead, he expects the Taliban to fight for another year to maximise their leverage in negotiations with the Afghan government.
The events of the past two years endorse that analysis. The Taliban has been working to re-establish its dominance of the southern provinces that were its heartland before the US invasion in 2001. So far, it has targeted areas where Afghan security forces lacked capable leadership and the stomach for pitched battles.
Step by step, the Taliban are working to encircle Kandahar, capital of the erstwhile Taliban “emirate”, where they will face a much stiffer challenge from Afghan security forces led by provincial police chief General Abdul Razzaq, a formidable leader cut from the same cloth as General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Nur, the strongmen of northern Afghanistan.
Beyond that, little is certain. The war in Afghanistan has not featured in the US presidential election campaign, so there have not been any clear indications from candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as to what policies they might pursue.
Mrs Clinton is very knowledgeable about South Asian affairs, which suggests she would continue with the Obama administration’s policy and might even prolong US military involvement in Afghanistan. On the other hand, she might choose not to take ownership of what is an unwinnable war because of the American public’s lack of interest.
Mr Trump is a complete wild card. Taken at face value, he is believed to want to abandon Afghanistan to its own fate. But he could seek to take a Putin-esque stand against terrorism.
In turn, the decision on the next US president will have a direct bearing on the politics within the Afghan government. Despite the growing urgency of their situation, president Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah are barely on talking terms with each other or the regional strongmen that make up their national unity government. Had US secretary of state John Kerry not publicly lectured them when he visited Kabul in April, their coalition would probably have disintegrated, rendering Mr Ghani a lame duck.
There are no guarantees that the Taliban will remain a cohesive political force either. The death of its founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose word was treated as gospel, has exposed many divisions within the movement. For the most part, the Taliban have remained unified because the gorup is at war. It may well splinter if and when Mr Akhundzada decides to engage in negotiations with Kabul.
History and current circumstances suggest Afghanistan is in dire peril of descending into the kind of chaos that followed the withdrawal of occupying Soviet forces in 1989. That situation created the Taliban and provided the base to Al Qaeda from which it launched the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
Were that scenario to repeat itself in coming years, ISIL would probably be the beneficiary.
Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad