Things appear to be in a flux in Afghanistan. After the initial few rounds of direct talks between the US and the Taliban, there appears little progress with regard to convincing the latter to agree to engage with the government in Kabul. The stance appears to be firm and unshakable. So, various alternatives are being debated to get the Taliban on board the reconciliation process. It is an expected outcome of a flawed undertaking whereby the US and its allies opted to talk to an adversary who has been on the ascendant for a considerable period of time with new areas falling under their jurisdiction every passing day. They have repeatedly proclaimed that time is on their side and they could wait for a thousand years. So, what could be the rationale for the Taliban to opt for the negotiating table when they are convinced that the final victory is within their grasp? This is more so with the exhaustion level of the US taking a heavy toll of their resolve to continue fighting a war which many consider they have already lost. Things have also changed substantially at the regional level with more players entering the arena in a proactive mould. The Russian initiative was successful in the sense that it managed to get all the relevant constituents to the attainment of a possible peace together on the same table — a feat that the US would not have been able to achieve. We seem to have come a full cycle. A war that started eighteen years ago to eliminate the scourge of the Taliban has come round to offering it all back to them on a platter to do with Afghanistan as they may. In its eagerness to get out of Afghanistan, supping with the devil appears to be the preferred option for the US after a prolonged, though often ill-planned indulgence The negotiations between the Taliban and the US have so far been conducted on the former’s terms. In its eagerness to get the talks going, the US has conceded to two of the Taliban preconditions including release of some of its prisoners and direct talks. The third one — the plan of the US withdrawal — is what is now on the table and any further progress in the reconciliation process depends on forward movement on this front. The Taliban refusal further strengthens the view that they would be no party to any deal if it envisaged a role for the Kabul government whom they consider to be a ‘puppet’ dispensation. So, the principal dilemma facing the US has been how to convince the Taliban to get on board as, without their active participation and support, there is no real prospect of peace returning to Afghanistan. Of the possible options, the one which is being floated around is to postpone the next presidential elections in Afghanistan and set up a transitional government instead of which the Taliban would be a part from its very outset. So, instead of trying to convince the Taliban to talk to the Kabul government, a mechanism is being pieced together whereby they would be the founder member of a government which would be entrusted with the responsibility of finalising details of how the country is to be taken further, including redrafting its constitution and other requisites that the Taliban would bring to the table. The transitional government will have to work within a stipulated time period to complete the task, leading to the next elections in the country. All this would be contingent on the US announcing the details of its withdrawal plan from Afghanistan complete with a timeframe which is further necessitated by the increasing pressure from the US president. Mr. Trump had strongly pleaded the cause of withdrawal from Afghanistan on his campaign trail: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA”. The key question that arises in the event such a plan actually sees the light of the day, and when the US troops are withdrawn from the country, will be with regard to guarantees and mechanisms that would remain in place to thwart a possible bid for a complete take-over by the Taliban. Will it be continued, though diminished US presence? I have always taken the position that the Taliban do not believe in sharing power, but would be eager to rule without any unnecessary constraints. This would be possible only when they are the unquestioned rulers without a challenge — least of all a challenge emanating from within the government itself from forces which would not agree with their world-view. This, to me, remains the larger scenario so far as the Taliban are concerned. Whenever and wherever they agree to conduct these talks would only be a ruse to get the US out of Afghanistan so that they have the field to themselves to play around as they may. Post-US withdrawal, the Taliban will not have any substantive challenge with power and relevance to stop them from taking over the country. There is little opposition that is likely to emerge from the regional players either. Another factor that may ultimately work to the advancement of the proposed solution is the exhaustion that has crept into the Afghan people’s psyche. They have seen enough blood and they desperately desire an end to this. This may be possible by allowing the Afghan people to resolve the crisis in their own way. If that were to happen, the Taliban would again have the upper hand simply because of their firepower and ability to influence the Afghan elders for peace returning under their command as being the sole option. Are we headed for another Taliban government in Afghanistan? Under the existing circumstances, and keeping abreast of the recent developments, it may just be so. The escalating Taliban influence and power in Afghanistan, growing weariness of the Afghan people and the increasing US eagerness to quit the war-ravaged country are all indications that the Taliban ascendancy, after all, may not just be a mirage, but a real-time actualisation. So, where do I place the eighteen years that have elapsed since Afghanistan was attacked to remove the Taliban from power? How do I deal with the hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed and the agony of a people who have faced suicide bombings as a matter of routine? What of those sons and daughters who will not be seen any longer, those siblings whose lives were cruelly cut short and countless people who irremediably suffered the brutal fear of the looming death? We seem to have come a full cycle. A war that started eighteen years ago to eliminate the scourge of the Taliban has come round to offering it all back to them on a platter to do with Afghanistan as they may. In its eagerness to get out of Afghanistan, supping with the devil appears to be the preferred option for the US after a prolonged, though often ill-planned indulgence. If all this were actually to happen, it would provide a potent rationale for terror to remain relevant as an instrument of governance and policy-making. How tragic! The writer is a political and security strategist, and heads the Regional Peace Institute — an Islamabad-based think-tank. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @Raoof Hasan Published in Daily Times, December 2nd 2018.