The Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, a significant shift in U.S. policy in Afghanistan, done in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war.

The Taliban have long said they will first discuss peace only with the Americans, who toppled their regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But the U.S. has mostly insisted that the Afghan government must take part.

Broader talks

The recent strategy shift, which was confirmed by several senior American and Afghan officials, is intended to bring those two positions closer and lead to broader, formal negotiations to end the long war. he shift to prioritise initial U.S. talks with the Taliban over what has proved a futile “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process stems from a realisation by both Afghan and American officials that President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy is not making a fundamental difference in rolling back Taliban gains.

While no date for any talks has been set, and the effort could still be derailed, the willingness of the U.S. to pursue direct talks is an indication of the sense of urgency in the administration to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.

Not long after he took office, Mr. Trump reluctantly agreed to provide more resources to his field commanders fighting the Taliban, adding a few thousand troops to bring the U.S. total to about 15,000. But a year later the insurgent group continues to threaten Afghan districts and cities and inflict heavy casualties on the country’s security forces.

The government controls or influences 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and the Taliban 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested, according the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Providing more authority to U.S. envoys, a move that was decided on last month by Mr. Trump’s security aides, is seen as part of a wider push to inject new momentum into efforts to end the war. Those efforts include a rare ceasefire last month, increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan to stop providing sanctuary to Taliban leaders and a rallying of Islamic nations against the insurgency’s ideology. Grassroots peace movements have also increased pressure on all sides.

Over the past few weeks, senior American officials have flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan to lay the groundwork for direct U.S.-Taliban talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, last week, and Alice G. Wells, the top diplomat for the region, spent several days holding talks with major players in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Breaking the ice

Efforts have particularly focused on trying to persuade the Afghan leadership that such talks are not a replacement for negotiations with the country’s coalition government, but are meant to break the ice and pave the way for those. Because the previous Afghan government felt left out of peace efforts during the Obama administration, it resisted direct talks.

Neither the State Department nor the Taliban would comment on the shift of policy toward engaging the Taliban directly.NY Times

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