The senior U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, Ambassador Alice Wells, urged Afghanistan’s Taliban to carefully consider last week’s offer by President Ashraf Ghani to hold direct peace negotiations. “It is a positive sign” that the Taliban have not rejected Ghani’s proposal, Wells said—and a planned regional conference in Tashkent this month should rally international support for Ghani’s offer of a political settlement with the insurgency.

“The Afghan people want to maintain their constitutional, legal system, representative democracy and strong ties to the rest of the world,” said Wells, speaking to journalists, current and former officials and other Afghan specialists at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The question I pose to the Taliban is how will you join this … new Afghanistan, and what positive role are you willing to play to secure its future? Because the best way to determine the answer to these tough questions is at the negotiating table with the Afghan government.”

Wells spoke after returning from Afghanistan and the “Kabul Process” conference at which Ghani made his offer. 

That meeting “was really a landmark event,” Wells said. “President Ghani endorsed a dignified path to a political settlement and put forward a vision of reconciliation that was both credible and detailed. This was a true, pan-Afghan overture to the Taliban” supported not only by Ghani but by all partners in the country’s coalition government and civil society leaders, including women, she said.

Movement in the Afghan Conflict

The Kabul meeting is part of a flurry of diplomacy and public discussion of direct peace talks that have followed months of movement in the conflict. In August, the U.S. administration announced a new strategy to sustain U.S. forces in Afghanistan indefinitely while seeking an Afghan political settlement. In January, the United States suspended military aid to Pakistan over continued support from within Pakistan for Taliban who attack Afghan targets and U.S. troops. In the same month, four terrorist attacks rocked Kabul, killing more than 130 people, and the Taliban and ISIS each claimed responsibility for two of them.

In February, direct peace feelers emerged from both sides in Afghanistan. The Taliban issued an open letter addressed to the American people seeking peace talks with the United States. And last week’s conference in Kabul produced what arguably is the most forward-leaning plan for peace with the Taliban that the Afghan government has ever put forward.The Afghan government’s proposal “is a peace offer that the United States supports and is prepared to facilitate,” Ambassador Wells said today at USIP. She repeated recent statements that the Taliban must talk with the Afghan government rather than the United States. On the Taliban’s longstanding call for a withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops, Wells said that American forces are “in Afghanistan as a result of the war. … If the war goes away and the terrorist groups are defeated, obviously the question of our presence can be taken up.”

Critical Regional Actors

USIP analysts and others, such as New York University’s Barnett Rubin, have emphasized the need to gather all of the neighboring states and regional powers around Afghanistan into the overall peace effort, with Pakistan perhaps the most critical of those. 

Despite the U.S. suspension of military aid to the Pakistani government, “we are not walking away from Pakistan,” Wells emphasized, noting that she had met with Pakistan’s foreign secretary yesterday.

Veteran U.S. diplomat David Rank, now a USIP adviser, issued a report this week urging a more energetic U.S. initiative to seek cooperation with China—a key ally of Pakistan—in promoting an Afghan peace process. 

“I think that the role of China is potentially quite important,” Wells said in today’s forum. “We have overlapping interests with China in Afghanistan.”

How Much Hope?

The Afghan specialists gathered at USIP today discussed how much optimism to invest around the current bustle of diplomacy over a peace process. “I think the chances for peace are better today than at any time in the 17-plus years that I’ve been working on this,” said David Sedney, an Afghan scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and recently the acting president of the American University of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan “has a tendency not to always reward people who express optimism,” said USIP’s Andrew Wilder. “But I do think there’s a risk of being so skeptical that we miss opportunities.

Wells remained measured. To a question about next steps, she noted the plan for a conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on March 26 and 27 that is to focus in part on better integrating Afghanistan, notably economically, into the Central Asian region.

“Looking ahead, we have an important opportunity in Tashkent to further underscore to the Taliban this sense of unity … not just among the regional partners but the international partners, the Gulf” states, that the Afghan government peace represents a valid opening that the Taliban should seize, Wells said.

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