Afghan National Army honor guards from the 209th Corps march on their base in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

Top Afghan Adviser `Optimistic' About Peace Deal With Taliban

(Bloomberg) -- A senior Afghan official said he was optimistic about reaching peace with the Taliban even as violence in the war-torn nation increases and the government appears to be losing more control of the country. 

"I am much more optimistic than I was a year ago," Haneef Atmar, national security adviser to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, said Thursday in a briefing to reporters in Washington. "The incentives that are being offered have been strengthened” by the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy, he added.

Atmar was in Washington to meet National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other U.S. officials. His visit comes a day after a suicide bomber killed 33 people and wounded dozens of others in an attack near Kabul University in the nation’s capital, according to the Associated Press. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred during a holiday marking the start of the Persian New Year.

As a private citizen and a presidential candidate, Donald Trump criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan. But in August, he authorized the Pentagon to deploy more troops to the country as part of a strategy encompassing several countries in the region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The move was presented as a shift away from "nation-building," which Trump called a failure.

During a December visit to Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. facility in Afghanistan, Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter that “I believe with all my heart that Afghanistan will be free and America will be safe, and we’ll WIN this fight.”

But winning has been elusive in what has become America’s longest war, started in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Despite the Trump administration’s shift in strategy, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate, with the Islamic State establishing a base in the northern part of the country and the Taliban expanding control.

"It’s clearly important for the Afghan government to show appreciation for the administration’s renewed commitment and to try to bolster that commitment," said Laurel Miller, a former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State who now works at the RAND Corporation. "But there’s a very difficult set of facts on the ground that can’t be ignored."

The war was already the longest in American history when the U.S. and its allies turned security over to the Afghan military in 2014. In February, Ghani offered to begin peace talks with the Taliban. The Taliban have responded to the offer with skepticism, calling on the U.S. to join the process.

Atmar said the Afghan government has also reached out to Iran, Russia, China, India, Turkey and other "key Middle Eastern actors" on questions of counter-terrorism and peace and reconciliation. "The success of these two strategies critically depend on these actors," he said.

Yet if carried out, that effort could complicate relations with the U.S., particularly given the Trump administration’s focus on isolating Iran and the widening international criticism over Russia’s behavior on issues from the 2016 U.S. election to accusations it used military-grade nerve agents to kill a former spy in the U.K.

The head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told a congressional committee in Washington earlier this year that Russia is attempting to limit the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and is causing “friction among NATO partners.”

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, has said he believes Russia can play a decisive role in ending the conflict.

“Russia can contribute massively to peace in Afghanistan,” Karzai said in an interview with Bloomberg News last month.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.