After nearly 15 years, the Taliban show no signs of slowing their insurgency in Afghanistan. Hopes that the group would participate in peace talks were recently dashed when it announced it would not do so, even though a small rival Islamist group, Hizb-i-Islami, agreed to be included. Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States — all part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group for stabilizing Afghanistan — ended their latest meeting in February on a cautiously optimistic note by formally inviting the Taliban to talks. But in early March, the militant organization released a statement saying it would decline the invitation until its demands are met. Then in an unexpected gesture on March 17, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor — leader of the mainline Taliban faction who has been silent since allegedly being wounded in a gunfight in November — released an online statement in Pashto exhorting the Taliban to intensify their fighting. This suggests that Mansoor is motivating the Taliban to launch a spring offensive, even as the organization has, unlike in previous years, fought continuously through the harsh winter months.
The Taliban are opposed to peace talks for two main reasons. First, the group has had significant battlefield success. Earlier this month, the Taliban overtook the Khan Neshin district and now control five of the 12 districts in Helmand, the country's largest province and the center of its opium production. Indeed, so intense is the fighting in Helmand that NATO recently dispatched Brig. Gen. Andrew Rohling to command troops in the restive region. (Last month, NATO dispatched a contingent of U.S. troops numbering in the hundreds to support Afghan forces in the struggling province.) Second, the group's demands have not been met. The Taliban want a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the release of Taliban prisoners and the removal of Taliban names from a U.N.-sponsored blacklist. Moreover, even if the Taliban were to join peace talks, they would insist on doing so through their political office in Qatar, which Kabul refuses to recognize for fear of bestowing political legitimacy upon the militants.
Pakistan's diminishing influence over the group further complicates the prospect of peace talks. While visiting the United States earlier this month, Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz made a startling admission by publicly acknowledging that Pakistan is hosting members of the Taliban, which it has long denied. Aziz said that Pakistan provides medical facilities to elements within the Taliban and hosts their families, adding that this aid could be used to pressure the Taliban to join negotiations. Even so, Aziz cautioned that hosting the organization does not mean Pakistan has outright control over the movement. Indeed, Pakistani officials also revealed that despite threats during a recent secret meeting to expel the Taliban from Pakistan, the militants refused to join peace talks.
In spite of the Taliban's relentless onslaught, peace talks received a small but hopeful victory March 13. A three-member delegation from Afghan Islamist group Hizb-i-Islami met with Afghanistan's High Peace Council to discuss joining negotiations. The organization has several hundred fighters and is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord who fought in the Soviet-Afghan war. Hekmatyar briefly served as the prime minister of Afghanistan during the 1990s before taking up arms, first against opposing factions in the country's civil war and later against coalition forces following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Although Hekmatyar did not attend the meeting and is thought to be hiding in Pakistan, his organization's delegation urged other factions in Afghanistan to stop fighting and to join the peace talks. Of course, joining peace talks is different from arriving at a sustained and conclusive settlement in which all parties agree to stop fighting, a process that could take years.
During a recent two-day visit to Kabul, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg predicted that Afghanistan will face a difficult year ahead, citing its shrinking economy and fractious political landscape as factors that will continue to hamper the country's long journey toward prosperity. It looks increasingly unlikely that the Taliban will join peace talks. This spring, they will likely launch fresh attacks against the struggling Afghan National Security Forces in support of their enduring goal to exert control over Afghanistan. Therefore, the nation's war against extremism and struggle for stability, unity and peace will persist.