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Expectations for an Afghan peace process grew last month with the Taliban’s release of a letter addressed to the American people offering to negotiate. It was followed more recently by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s unconditional willingness to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party and other significant concessions. Reacting to the two initiatives, many have concluded that the ice has been broken in finding a political solution to the Afghan conflict.
Yet cautiousness if not cynicism is in order. The content of the Taliban’s letter and subsequent messages should leave little doubt of its intentions. Rather than laying the ground for talks, the overture was designed to weaken the resolve of the American public and elected officials to support the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to drive a wedge between the Kabul government and the United States. Displaying a sophisticated understanding of psych-ops, the Taliban’s letter reflects a careful reading of the American public’s debate and frustrations over the Afghan war. By excluding the Kabul government as a participant in negotiations, the well-crafted three-thousand-word message also seeks to fuel long-standing suspicions in Kabul of a deal being struck behind its back.
Several factors seemingly contributed to the timing of the Taliban peace offensive. Appearing just prior to the Kabul conference, the letter offered the opportunity to upstage the twenty-five-nation meeting that Ghani used to reach out to the Taliban. It also followed a comment by President Donald Trump declaring “no negotiations” with the Taliban anytime soon, as well as President Ghani’s declaration, made after a series of deadly terrorist attacks, that the Kabul government would only talk to insurgents with “no blood on their hands.” Both statements allowed the Taliban through its peace initiative to suggest that the onus for prolonging the war belonged elsewhere.