The United States and the Taliban are reported to be in the early stages of discussions for the first time since 2012. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Kolenda, who fought in Afghanistan and later served as a senior Pentagon adviser, was instrumental in helping set up those talks — in part through his own discussion with Taliban officials in Qatar. He spoke with VOA’s William Gallo about where he sees the peace process going, especially in light of a recent surge in violence. This interview was condensed for clarity.
William Gallo: How would you characterize the current U.S.-Taliban talks?
Christopher Kolenda: We’ve had a situation in which each of the three main parties — the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the United States — have all been wanting talks but have put conditions on starting talks that the other side can’t meet.
So this effort for a conversation between the U.S. government and the Taliban, which has happened in full coordination with the Afghan government, is meant as an icebreaker to lead to a negotiating process in which the Taliban and the Afghan government begin discussions about the political future of Afghanistan. Because only Afghans can solve that.
Gallo: Is there any indication these talks have moved into more advanced stages?
Kolenda: Not to my knowledge. It seems there was a discussion and then things are on hold a bit. There’s rumored to be another round of U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha in early September.
Gallo: From your discussions, which included former U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel, what do you sense the Taliban wants?
Kolenda: Well, the bottom line is they want an end to the occupation. The occupation — that’s what they call it. They don’t want international combat troops targeting them anymore. And once the occupation is finished, then they say they can begin to have negotiations with the Afghan government on a political settlement.
Gallo: Your discussions were with the Taliban political commission in Qatar. Do you sense that this office actually has the authority to negotiate these things?
Kolenda: I’ve been at this for a while. I was the secretary of defense’s representative in the exploratory talks with the Taliban from 2010 to 2012. I’ve been following this very, very closely ever since. And the Taliban, for their part, have been very consistent that their political representatives in Doha are the people they have designated to engage in these talks and to engage with international actors. In some ways, these are the Taliban’s version of diplomats. They are there as people who represent the point of view of the senior leadership.
Certainly, as in any organization, there are certain divisions. But at the end of the day, what we’ve seen from the Taliban, particularly reflected during a cease-fire at the last Eid, was a level of political cohesion that surprised many people. So through my engagement on these issues, I am fairly well convinced that the political office is who they say they are.
Gallo: There were reports that during your talks with the Taliban that they expressed an openness to a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. What can you tell us about that?
Kolenda: There’s a lot of nuance here that I think is very important. What they’ve said consistently, and this goes back to 2010, is that if a government formed after a political settlement, which presumably would include Taliban leaders, decides that they would like international troops to train Afghan security forces, then that’s a decision that a legitimate, inclusive government can take.
Now the corollary to that, which is also very important, is that if a government, post-political settlement, said, ‘We don’t want foreign troops here at all,’ then there would be an expectation that foreign countries would respect that decision and their foreign troops would go.
So I think it’s really important to understand this more holistic point of view. Their No. 1 reason for war — their casus belli, if you will — is the occupation. So they’re not going to just simply say, ‘We’re OK with U.S. combat troops running around Afghanistan.’ Because that’s what they’re fighting to prevent, from their point of view.
Gallo: Do you think this is something the U.S., and in particular the Trump administration, could accept?
Kolenda: Look, at the end of the day, if there’s no terrorist threat from Afghanistan to the United States, the United States has no reason to keep troops there. I mean, I love Afghanistan. I love Afghans. I have genuinely enjoyed all of the time that I’ve spent in Afghanistan. But for a country to want to station combat troops in a landlocked country half a world away that is surrounded by powers that don’t want you there, that is not an enviable position for any country.
Gallo: Since these U.S.-Taliban talks began, there has been an enormous surge in violence. Is that because the Taliban are fighting to improve their bargaining position?
Kolenda: The Taliban don’t expect they’ll be able to overthrow the Afghan government while the current levels of international support remain. And they are not in a position to be forced to sue for peace while they have the current levels of local and international support that they enjoy. So that’s part of the motivation for them to begin to explore peace talks.
There are other motivations as well, including their worry about Afghanistan becoming the next Syria. And there’s probably an expectation or a belief on their part that their leverage is getting about as good as it’s going to get. So strategically it’s a decent time for them to negotiate.
So certainly violence is leverage and it’s leverage for all sides. But probably more so for the Taliban. And so in these exploratory phases, the Taliban can be perfectly serious about peace, but still engaging in these major operations, because they’re trying to improve their leverage.
Gallo: For a lot of people who follow Afghanistan, I think we get tired sometimes of every development, whether good or bad, being interpreted as progress. Isn’t it possible that this latest violence is just the Taliban continuing to fight the war it’s been fighting for the last 17 years?
Kolenda: There has been remarkable progress in Afghanistan in many, many respects. People talk a lot about the economic progress and political formation and raising the Afghan security forces. And those are all tremendous. The progress on human rights and the impact on women, and of women, has been so significant that even the Taliban have been issuing statements over the last several years talking about the importance of human rights and women’s role in Afghanistan. The Taliban seem to sense they have to keep pace with these social changes and expectations in order to remain relevant.
When you look at the battlefield, certainly since the end of the Obama administration, the Taliban have made major gains. And you have situations like Ghazni where they prove they can surround a major city and conduct major operations into it. At the same time, they’re not able to hold that territory. So all of these things suggest there’s a strategic stalemate.
Another reason why talks are very important: When you look at the policy positions among the combatants on some of the major issues, frankly there’s not a whole lot of daylight between them. Now all of this needs to be tested, of course. But it suggests that each party is willing to recognize some of the major war aims of the other. And when you’re in that position, there’s a responsibility to pursue a way to bring the conflict to a conclusion.