It is both what we knew had to happen one day and something no one ever expected to happen.
The key plank of both US and Afghan policy for ending the longest war in American history is that the Taliban must enter into a political process.
But this was often couched with the Taliban’s renunciation of violence and distancing from al Qaeda, or a military win for the Afghan-US coalition that would put these allies in a position of strength ahead of negotiations.
Yet on Wednesday, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani swept away over a decade of caveats and said that with no preconditions, the Taliban could be a recognized political party with an office in Kabul. This would be the first time they’ve had a post in the capital since they ran it in 2001.
Much can change or be rejected, and the demand that women be involved throughout the process may deter an immediate acceptance from Taliban hardliners.
But this staggering change of heart comes just over 30 days since US President Donald Trump said talks were off the table. “I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now,” he said on January 28. “It’s a whole different fight over there. They’re killing people left and right. Innocent people are being killed left and right.”
Afghanistan is the only part of US foreign policy this commander in chief has made a specific and detailed policy speech on. He has pledged to win – but has been sketchy on how.
Yet this statement in January dismayed some US officials who had long accepted the need to encourage talks and not dismiss them out of hand. (Yes, the US proscribes the Taliban as a terrorist group, but peace talks were always meant to be an Afghan-only affair, surmounting that hurdle).
Afghan security officials echoed Trump’s sentiment, as it came after a series of ghastly Taliban and ISIS attacks in the heart of the capital
But now, suddenly, we have Ashraf Ghani, in the face of political turmoil in his unity government and demands for elections sooner rather than later, making a stark and unconditional volte face. Why?
The simplest answer is the starkest: desperation. The Taliban are increasing the territory they dominate, according to the latest US figures.
Losses by Afghan security forces had been mounting, yet are now classified under an order from the Afghan government. Bombs regularly hit the most protected parts of Kabul. Neither of these things suggests that the war against the Taliban is going well.
This sudden and sweeping offer does not fit with the often-espoused four-year plan from the coalition. This year it is meant to see territory being reclaimed, putting Kabul in a position of strength. And that simply isn’t happening at this point.
Yet to dismiss this as foolish and a mere act of desperation would relegate Afghanistan’s conflict to the brutal domain of warlords and strongmen.
The broad need to begin peace talks has been present since the Obama administration began focusing on the war in 2009. The conditions for those talks were never met, so they took place in secret. They then ultimately failed, as the Taliban kept winning militarily, and knew the American surge would soon end.
Perhaps President Ghani needs progress – to be seen as achieving something in a war where loss and death are the main currency. Starting up talks might curry favor with war-exhausted Afghans.
Perhaps he felt the need to dial back on the negativity of January’s statements against negotiations. Perhaps he believes the Taliban are more open to a political accommodation than is publicly known.
The Taliban have – at the time of writing – yet to answer. They have tired and weary members, but are also deep in competition with ISIS for younger recruits and finance, so may find accepting this open offer does not chime with their objective of trying to reclaim the title of being the most-extreme insurgent group.
It is also unclear that even if the Taliban accept initial talks, ISIS will stop the violence, or that another Taliban atrocity like the recent attack in Kabul won’t make negotiating with the enemy politically unpalatable again.
The scope for success – for getting a decades-old insurgency that is winning militarily to talk itself out of a fight – is small.
The scope for failure – for the flat and blunt rejection of this open and generous offer of talk and legitimization, or its slow demise through intransigence and continued violence – is large.