The top American commander in Afghanistan and other U.S. officials are talking up prospects for peace negotiations with the Taliban, arguing that after 16 years of war the militants are weary of a stalemate on the battlefield.
Gen. John Nicholson, who commands more than 14,000 U.S troops in an American-led coalition, acknowledged that peace talks, which the Taliban definitively rejected just two years ago, likely would take years to bear fruit.
His emphasis on a push for peace coincides with the Trump administration's injection of new resources into the war effort and the start of the traditional fighting season this spring. It also comes as turmoil in the State Department raises questions about the steadiness, depth and effectiveness of American diplomatic clout.
At the same time, security in Afghanistan is so tenuous that parliamentary elections set for July could slip to autumn. Nicholson said pursuit of a second key feature of Trump's strategy — pressuring Pakistan to halt its support for Taliban-linked militants who use Pakistan as a sanctuary — has yet to produce clear-cut results.
Asked whether Pakistan had changed its behavior in this regard, Nicholson said: "No changes yet that wouldn't be potentially reversible."
The U.S. and its Afghan partner have said many times during the course of America's longest war that the Taliban were faltering and edging toward the peace table, only to be proven wrong. By some measures the Taliban today control more of Afghanistan than at any time since they were forced from power in a U.S.-led invasion in October 2001.
The Taliban have proven far more resourceful than the U.S. originally anticipated.
Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, director of the air campaign against the Taliban, said the militants are believed to be collecting at least $300 million a year in revenue from a variety of sources, including the narcotics trade and illegal mining. He said the air campaign is targeting labs that enable the Taliban's narcotics trafficking.
The Taliban have not yet responded to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's recent unconditional offer of peace talks. They have, however, insisted that they would only talk peace with Washington. The U.S. position is that the Taliban must talk to Afghan leaders.
Nicholson spoke to reporters Wednesday at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul shortly after consulting for a second day with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis has a long history with the conflict: as a Marine general, he commanded a unit that established a crucial foothold in southern Afghanistan in November 2001.
Mattis told reporters on Tuesday that while getting the entire Taliban leadership to the peace table may be "a bridge too far," some elements of the group "clearly are interested in talking to the Afghan government."'
Senior U.S. military officers in Kabul voiced similar views in interviews this week.
Brig. Gen. Michael R. Fenzel, the coalition's director of strategic plans, said small numbers of Taliban fighters are "coming in" to express interest in reconciling with the Afghan government. He declined to be more specific beyond describing them as groups of 10 or 20 fighters — "not a critical mass" of militants, he said.
Fenzel, Nicholson and other officers credited Ghani with taking a host of military, political and diplomatic measures that together are diminishing prospects for new Taliban gains as the traditional fighting season gets underway in April or May. These include a new push to stiffen security in Kabul, where a series of deadly attacks this year have reinforced the impression of Taliban resilience.
Nicholson said that some members of a newly arrived brigade of U.S. Army advisers are assigned to mentoring Afghan police in Kabul as part of a comprehensive plan for improving security in a city of an estimated 5 million residents. He said U.S. special forces are helping carry out raids on militant safe houses in the city.
Nicholson said the U.S. government needs to focus more attention on the possibilities for a diplomatic opening to the Taliban.
"I would like to see a real concentrated effort on this," he said in the interview. "We need to focus on this more."