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U.S. faces newly muscular Taliban in peace-talk efforts

The movement is stronger than any time since an American-led military coalition deposed it 17 years ago

As it pushes to jump-start an Afghan peace process, the U.S. faces a Taliban stronger than any time since an American-led military coalition deposed them 17 years ago, U.S. and Afghan officials, current and former militants and experts say.

The movement’s battlefield successes and territorial gains give the group more sway in talks, in which it seeks the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces from Afghanistan and to forge an ultraconservative Islamic government.

Prospects for serious dialogue rose last week when the Taliban appointed five senior members to join their political office in Qatar following two rounds of U.S.-Taliban discussions in recent months. Among the appointments are a top former military commander, Mohammed Fazl, who is expected to prove popular among the Taliban rank-and-file and boost the office’s negotiating clout, people familiar with the rationale for the step say.

The Trump administration in September enlisted a high-profile envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to spearhead U.S. negotiating efforts. The White House hopes to end America’s longest war while ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a base for Islamic State, al Qaeda and other jihadists to carry out terrorist attacks abroad. The U.S. has suggested a phased withdrawal as Afghanistan stabilizes. The Taliban want a deadline for a pullout.

The Taliban now control or influence about half of Afghanistan’s territory, according to a U.S. government watchdog. A current map of the war’s progress would resemble a slice of Swiss cheese, with government-controlled areas the holes and insurgent-controlled or influenced areas everything else.

In some of those areas, the Taliban have set up a shadow government where it collects electricity bills and runs schools. The movement’s leaders have been based in Pakistan since 2001, but now some feel safe enough in Afghanistan to spend more time there.

Afghan and U.S. government estimates put the number of Taliban as high as 70,000 fighters, including underground supporters and regular and auxiliary fighters. The movement has broadened beyond its ethnic Pashtun base to include Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds.

“It is capable of implementing governance policy across a large territory from top to bottom,” according to Ashley Jackson, a researcher who surveyed 20 districts controlled at least in part by the Taliban.

The Taliban leadership weathered a bout of infighting that followed its 2015 admission that its founder was dead. The group also has more international ties than ever before, including with former enemies Iran and Russia.

Taliban fighters continue to prove they can mount deadly attacks across the country, including in the capital Kabul. They haven’t been able to hold major cities or provincial capitals, but the Trump administration’s deployment of additional forces last year and an escalation of the American-led air war have failed to roll back their gains.

Yet, the Taliban appear interested in exploring a peace deal, as a way to remove Western troops and exploit their current strong negotiating position.

“We don’t want to prolong this war, but we can fight on forever,” a senior Taliban figure, involved in operations said in an interview, adding that he recognized that ordinary Afghans suffered as a result of war. “The Americans must come up with a bold plan, a peace plan that will cover up their disaster in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban’s hopes for a clear-cut military victory have faded with the American reinforcements, said Borhan Osman, an Afghanistan specialist at the International Crisis Group. Also driving the Taliban’s interest in talks is the foothold that Islamic State has gained in Afghanistan, he said.

“Islamic State has forced the Taliban to craft a distinct ideology, breaking with global jihadism more clearly than ever before,” Mr. Osman said. “This new extremist group pushed the Taliban to think seriously about its political future.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in July that the Trump administration’s approach, which involves an open-ended commitment of American soldiers to Afghanistan, has enhanced the prospects for peace by putting the Taliban on notice that “they cannot wait us out.” However, many U.S. officials fear Mr. Trump’s patience for keeping the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan is waning.

Most of the Taliban’s leadership has concluded that Afghanistan will need American aid to function following any political settlement of the war, people familiar with internal group discussions say. The group hasn’t so far agreed to speak directly with Afghan government representatives, seeing the Kabul administration as a U.S. “puppet.” Kabul has offered to enter peace talks with the Taliban without conditions and recognize them as a legitimate political group.

While the Taliban weigh the direction of talks with the U.S. and the Afghan government, they are engaged in other diplomatic tracks, too.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said the Taliban will attend a summit on the Afghan peace process in Moscow on Friday. The ministry has invited India, Iran, Pakistan, China and the U.S. to send delegations to the gathering. The Afghan government has said it would send a contingent to the meeting. U.S. officials have said they wouldn’t.

Some members of the group insist they don’t want to return to the harshness and international isolation that characterized their regime in the 1990s. The Taliban, which arose as a movement of rural mullahs and religious students, had banned music, forbade girls from attending school and required woman to wear burqas, whipping them for allowing even a bit of ankle to show.

The Taliban still want changes to Afghanistan’s constitution and laws that mirror their purist version of Islam. Taliban officials may now have reconciled to women studying and working but they still require them to be fully covered and segregated in public.

“Women’s rights are acceptable, but we cannot say that both genders are equal,” said the senior Taliban official. “We don’t tell America what their laws should be, and nor should they tell us what our laws should be. This is a matter for Afghans.”

In areas under the Taliban control now, the group’s record is patchy. They allow girls to go to school in some places, but only up to puberty. Women are often required to have a male chaperone to leave the house.

The Taliban’s leader since 2016 is Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deeply conservative religious authority with no background in fighting. He oversees the group’s leadership council, which has around 30 members.

After a shaky start, Mr. Akhundzada has managed to establish his leadership by allowing other key leaders and groupings greater say. Under him, Muhammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, who carries enormous prestige within the movement, was brought in as one of his two deputies.

With their territorial gains in Afghanistan, some leaders are traveling there, including Mullah Yaqoob, according to Western intelligence. Others, including military chief Sadar Ibrahim and finance chief Gul Agha Ishaqzai, are spending much of their time there, particularly in the southern province of Helmand. That keeps them away from the intrusive hand of some elements of Pakistani intelligence.

The White House is pressing Pakistan to play a constructive role in the talks with the Taliban. Islamabad, which denies U.S. accusations of harboring the group, has long called for a political settlement with the Taliban. Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has for years called for U.S. soldiers to leave Afghanistan, saying there is no military solution.

Another U.S. and Afghan government concern is the role of the Haqqani network, a militant group allied with the Taliban responsible for many attacks in Kabul. A figure close to the network said it wouldn’t block a peace deal.

Experts say the Taliban’s unity, largely maintained throughout its existence and shown in a three-day cease-fire this summer, is remarkable for an insurgency. That suggests the leadership could enforce any peace deal it signs.

“The Taliban have strong command-and-control that they demonstrated in a nationwide cease-fire in which tens of thousands of fighters to a person obeyed,” said Johnny Walsh, formerly lead adviser on the Afghan peace process at the U.S. State Department.

By Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Craig Nelson in Kabul and Sami Yousafzai in Islamabad

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