Despite the Taliban’s failure to accept the Kabul government’s offer of another cease-fire this week, Johnny Walsh says that a political solution to the Afghanistan war is the best alternative to the current military stalemate. Even absent a cease-fire, hope remains that the peace process can move forward in 2018.

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Episode Transcript

Tim Farley (host): We are dealing with situations in Afghanistan now which require perhaps a change in strategy, perhaps not, but certainly there are efforts to get the Taliban to negotiate, and we are watching the fighting season now beginning to wind down over the coming weeks and months. Where does this leave the United States and the strategy in Afghanistan? Joining us is Johnny Walsh, Senior Expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Johnny Walsh, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Johnny Walsh: Hi, it's nice to be here.

Farley: There was something kind of threatening the other day when the president was addressing the crowd and bombs went off. He did seem to be a bit unfazed, but still it's a reminder that nothing has really become less dangerous in Afghanistan, it seems.

Walsh: Yeah, exactly. There is still widespread violence every day in Afghanistan. The incident in particular you're talking about were two rockets that were launched across Kabul. They appear to have been launched by the Islamic State as opposed to the Taliban. Either way, one landed fairly near the presidential palace during the president's ceremony marking the Eid holiday.

Farley: I wonder, and during that, the president, Ashraf Ghani, had mentioned that the government was ready to enact a ceasefire. The Taliban at this point seems either unwilling or unwilling to commit. What is your sense of that?

Walsh: It does appear that it is unlikely there will be a second ceasefire. For those who may not recall, there was a ceasefire for a previous Eid holiday in June, and it was really one of the most extraordinary events in the long history of this Afghan war. It was a nationwide ceasefire that for three days both the government and the Taliban and the United States respected, and it marked zero violations by the parties to the ceasefire. There were some attacks by the Islamic State. I've worked on ceasefires in a number of countries. I can't think of one that was so universally respected and that brought such an outpouring of emotion by combatants who really felt something for each other and would like to see the war wind down in many cases. There were high hopes that that could be repeated. 

President Ghani certainly tried very hard to enact a second one. He offered as much as a three-month ceasefire this time if the Taliban would reciprocate. It appears they're not ready to do it. That is unfortunate news, and unwelcome news, but the hopes are still very high that there could be progress on a long-standing peace effort this year in light of steps like that that the Taliban have taken in recent memory.

Farley: Johnny Walsh with us, Senior Expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace. Johnny, I look at this, and I know we've been watching this, and I know I've been covering it as long as I've been doing news that covers politics, we've been involved in Afghanistan since 2003, but explain the fighting season. I know that this is something that we look at every year, but people who don't realize there is actually a fighting season in Afghanistan.

Walsh: It's true. I served in Iraq too, and there was no such thing. It's sort of an Afghanistan-specific concept. It is generally from about April until about early, mid-October, the violence numbers are just a lot higher every year in Afghanistan. Violence certainly does not stop during the rest of the year, but a lot of the reason it tends to dwindle is that, number one, parts of Afghanistan itself are just not hospitable for fighting in the first place, and really for Taliban to be sheltering outside, to be sneaking around. 

The winter weather also closes many of the mountain passes from Pakistan. I don't want to suggest that all Taliban are coming from Pakistan, it's much more complicated than that, but many do and it becomes much harder to get into the country through some of the back routes, and that has its own effect on reducing violence temporarily.

Farley: Johnny, what is the public perception of the Taliban in Afghanistan now? At one time they were feared. They've been alternately loathed but also respected because of their sway over many people. Do they have popular support? Does the government have popular support? Give us a sense of their profile right now among the Afghan people.

Walsh: I would say broadly speaking that no, the Taliban is not popular. To the extent polling can be done in Afghanistan with any rigor, for years and years on end Taliban never poll more than 10 or 15% favorability in the country, and only modestly higher, even in rural Pashtun areas that are sort of seen as their heartland. So they are far from a majority popular movement. 

However, number one, they are popular enough clearly to have recruited a seemingly endless stream of fighters in basically every part of the country for 20 years now, and more than 20 years, and there's no real reason to believe that's going to abate, so they are popular enough to be militarily strong. 

Second, there are things that the Taliban does well that even some who don't like their program as a whole kind of grudgingly admit they occasionally do better than local government sometimes does. In some areas, the Taliban can be good at providing services. In particular, they have courts that rove around resolving local disputes efficiently and, in the view of some, with less corruption than the alternatives do. So they're able to maintain enough acquiescence, and I should note they also enforce their will with force and the threat of force that causes large populations just to accept, acquiesce to their presence, whether or not that person or group actually wants the Taliban back in power. 

All of that combines to say that the Taliban are a strong enough insurgency to keep doing this for a long time, and that's the main reason we tend to say the war at the large level is stalemated. It's very unlikely any side will win a military victory anytime soon and why, therefore, a peace process, political settlements are so important as the most plausible kind of happy ending to this conflict.

Farley: I have to wrap this up in a moment, but I did want to ask quickly, Johnny, if you could give us a sense of U.S. morale, the fighting forces in Afghanistan, how that stands right now.

Walsh: I think U.S. morale is high. We have an extraordinary military force that's been doing this for a long time. They've gotten very good at it, a very difficult mission. It's a smaller fighting force than it's been for the vast majority of the war, but I think actually on the ground you see a lot of commitment to what these pretty extraordinary men and women are doing.

Farley: Good to hear. Johnny, I appreciate you joining us. Thank you, and thank you for your service.

Walsh: Absolutely. Thank you.

Farley: That is Johnny Walsh, Senior Expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace. He's been a diplomat, and he also has a really long background to get into, but he spent 10 years with the U.S. Department of State and gives us some interesting perspective on the United States and Afghanistan. The Twitter handle is @USIP.

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