Trump sends envoys to Afghanistan to open talks directly with Taliban over peace deal

Ben Farmer
Tension has remained high since the Taliban shrugged off the Afghan government's latest offers of cease-fire and negotiations - AP

President Donald Trump's administration has ordered American envoys to seek direct talks with the Taliban to end the country's longest ever war, in a major shift after years of US diplomatic policy on the conflict.

The change in White House stance rolls back a long-held position that any talks must be led and controlled by the Afghan government.

Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has now told diplomats to seek initial talks with the militant insurgent movement to try to kick start a wider peace process to end the 17-year-long conflict.

The shift marks a significant concession to Taliban demands and comes amid frustration in the White House that Mr Trump's decision last year to ramp up the war has so far yielded few results.

"Our Secretary of State, Mr Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces," said General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, as he confirmed the news, first reported by the New York Times, on Monday.

"We hope that they realise this and that this will help to move the peace process forward."

Taliban leaders have long said they will not talk with the Kabul government, which they see as a puppet regime, and will instead only talk with America, which ousted the movement from power in 2001.

A soldier from Recce Platoon 3rd battalion of the Royal Canadian regiment battle group from the NATO-led coalition patrols a village in the Taliban stronghold of Arghandab in 2009 Credit:  Stefano Rellandini/REUTERS

In a statement last month the Taliban said: “The invading American party must realise and understand the reality of the situation, stop pointless stubbornness, sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio and withdraw their occupying forces from Afghanistan.”

Senior American officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have met major players in the region in recent weeks to lay the foundations for talks, the paper reported.

Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, said he was still waiting for confirmation but welcomed signs of the new approach.

"This is what we wanted and were waiting for, to sit with the US directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan," he said.

The move is likely to be met with deep suspicion in Kabul. Under the previous president, Hamid Karzai, several tentative peace initiatives failed because of Afghan fears a deal would be done behind the government's back.

After dramatically scaling down forces as part of the withdrawal of Nato combat forces in 2014, Mr Trump last year agreed to send more troops and said they would now “fight to win” against the Taliban and Islamic State group.

Under more aggressive rules of engagement, troop numbers have been increased and the number of air strikes has dramatically risen.

Yet the Afghan government has been unable at the same time to extend its writ, with Kabul still only in control of half the country's districts, according to a an independent US congressional watchdog.

It comes as a United Nations report found the number of civilian deaths in the country had reached a record in the first half of the year, with a surge in suicide attacks claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group (Isil).

The report followed an apparent suicide attack close to a government building in Kabul on Sunday which killed at least seven people and wounded more than 15.

Deaths rose one per cent to 1,692 from the same period last year, although overall civilian casualties were down by three per cent, according to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan's latest civilian casualty report.

The main causes of casualties were ground engagements between security forces and militants, roadside bombs, as well as suicide and other “complex attacks”, which caused 22 per cent more casualties, the UN's latest civilian casualty report found. 

Isil was said to be responsible for 52 per cent of casualties from suicide and complex attacks, while 40 per cent were attributed to the Taliban.