The Taliban’s decision Thursday to suspend the sputtering talks it launched with the United States in January is not really the result of recent incidents involving US soldiers in Afghanistan, including Sunday’s massacre of 16 Afghan villagers.
Instead, the decision reflects the increasingly adept political thinking of an organization that – already frustrated with the direction of initial talks with the US – is taking advantage of a moment when its “foreign enemy” is on the ropes, some Afghanistan analysts say.
And while everything about the Taliban’s statement suggests it envisions a temporary suspension, some suggest that the Taliban will wait and watch for indications that the US will move to accelerate the drawdown of its remaining 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, in the wake of recent signs of trouble in the US mission.
Speculation over further cuts in US troops beyond the 23,000 to leave Afghanistan by the end of summer “is what explains the Taliban walking away from peace talks,” says Max Boot, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “They believe they can wait and achieve what they want after 2014,” when the US and NATO combat presence is to end.
The White House responded to the Taliban announcement by reaffirming the US commitment to peace talks and insisting that the decade-old Afghanistan war will have to end with a political settlement.
“We support an Afghan-led process toward reconciliation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “There is no likely resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan without a political resolution.”
In its statement, the Taliban accused the US of “alternating and ever-changing” positions, and it said it would sit out the talks “until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time."
Mr. Carney denied those allegations and said the US had been consistent in its presentation of negotiation topics.
One problem that has plagued the fledgling talks is that the Taliban wants to focus on the issue of “prisoner exchange” and freeing its members held at the Guantánamo detention facility, while the US wants to emphasize Afghan reconciliation and a political settlement to the conflict.
The Taliban indicated no interest in sitting down with the Afghan government, which it referred to as the “Kabul administration.” It also suggested it believes it has the upper hand, particularly after recent events – including the village massacre and widespread outrage over the burning of Qurans by US soldiers.
The statement says the Taliban “has enduring patience and long-term jihadi strategies against the malicious plots of the enemy and enjoys the ceaseless support of its believing nation.”
While it is true that Afghans would prefer to see foreign soldiers leaving their country, Mr. Boot of CFR says, it is also just as true that they “want the foreign support to prevent a Taliban takeover.”
But others say that, despite recent setbacks and Thursday’s Taliban walkout, a negotiated settlement remains the only viable solution for ending the war.
“If we’re going to get an acceptable outcome, it’s going to be as a result of settlements talks,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense policy specialist at CFR.
The option of handing off to a capable Afghan military an “ongoing war” was based on a “very weakened Taliban,” he says, and that’s now “dead in the water.”
But this doesn’t mean the Taliban is jettisoning the talks for good with the idea it can now achieve a victory, Mr. Biddle says. The approaching spring and summer fighting season will influence the Taliban’s political moves, but at the same time the argument that the Taliban will only negotiate if it believes the US and NATO are about to win the war “is overstated,” he adds.
Instead, Biddle says he believes the Taliban will look ahead to dim prospects for overthrowing the Afghan government, along with greater chances of a “grinding civil war” stretching over the rest of the decade. He says it will ask, “Is there nothing the West could offer us that looks better than that?”
That means, he says, that while a negotiated settlement remains “far from certain,” it is also “not zero either.”