Afghan National Security Forces soldiers prepare for a resupply mission in Afghanistan's Helmand province. There are reports that Afghan special forces troops have been engaging in peace talks with Taliban leaders. (Spc. Brandon Thomas/Army)
Reports about peace talks between Taliban leaders and Afghan special forces troops in Afghanistan’s Helmand province have raised questions about security as coalition forces prepare to withdraw troops this year.
Reuters reported Aug. 15 that Gen. Asadullah Shirzad, commander of the Afghan special forces, announced to reporters the beginning of negotiations with Taliban and tribal leadership. The talks reportedly took place in Helmand’s war-torn Sangin district.
Taliban officials, however, have denied the claims. Spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, told Reuters there were no plans to talk.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense also denied the talks were taking place, with ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi telling the English-language service Pajhwok Afghan News that Afghan special forces troops were still engaged in fighting with Taliban militants in Sangin.
Marine Corps units pulled out of Sangin in May following the initial Afghan presidential election. The region, a hub for opium production and a hotbed for insurgency, proved a costly battleground for coalition forces. Some 50 Marines and 100 British troops died during fighting in Sangin.
A shrinking contingent of Marines remains in Helmand province, awaiting a complete drawdown of forces by the end of this year. Also in Helmand are members of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, who have been working intensively with Afghan commandos as they execute raids and engage insurgents.
Lt. Col. Jody Lynch, commander of 1st Marine Raider Battalion, told Marine Corps Times at Camp Leatherneck in May that the commandos — with their specialized training and determination — were setting the tone for all Afghan National Security Forces.
“What we see is, they’re very depended upon to take an offensive mindset to take an offensive approach to bring security to different areas,” Lynch said. “As they begin to operate, other units are quick to operate as well. They’re kind of an igniter to bring a lot of confidence to the way operations are going within the battlespace.”
A Marine spokesman for Regional Command Southwest, which oversees all coalition operations in Helmand province, said the command had no comment on the reports about talks with the Taliban, adding that the Afghan government would be best placed to respond to the reports.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to inquiries from Marine Corps Times.
Despite the confusion, an Afghanistan expert who has written at length about the outcome of negotiations with the Taliban said the reports of peace talks are as plausible as they are inadvisable.
Ahmad K. Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Afghan government does permit peace talks and dialogue between local appointees and the Taliban, as long as officials in Kabul are informed about the negotiations. Nonetheless, he said, the track record of diplomacy with the Taliban, dating back to the 1980s and beyond, shows these efforts tend to be ineffective.
Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah attempted reconciliation with the mujahideen in 1986 at the end of the Soviet occupation to little avail, Majidyar said. And in the late 1990s, he wrote in a position paper that U.S. attempts at diplomatic engagement with the Taliban ended in broken promises, doing little to root out al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan, then planning the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.
“The Taliban track record shows that the terrorist group isn’t sincere but rather uses talks to gain political and military advantage,” Majidyar said. “I believe that local commanders could be engaging in [negotiations]. If that’s true, previously talks with the Taliban do not translate to stability on a local or national level.”
The latest reports represent the second high-profile rumors of deal-making with the Taliban in Sangin. Last December, the English-language Afghan news agency Khaama press reported that Afghan troops had ceded a number of checkpoints in Sangin to Taliban forces. In March, British Brigadier Paul A.E. Nanson, a former associate commander of Regional Command Southwest, told reporters the checkpoints had been taken during fighting, rather than obtained through a turf-sharing accord. They were won back, he said, in a matter of hours.