As the US pushes the Afghan peace process forward, the US faces a Taliban stronger than ever since a US military coalition abated it 17 years ago, say US and Afghan officials, current and former fighters and experts ,
The successes of the movement on the battlefield and the territorial achievements give it more influence in the talks in which it seeks the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan and wants to forge an ultra-conservative Islamic government.
The prospects for serious dialogue rose last week as the Taliban appointed five senior members to their political office in Qatar after two rounds of US-Taliban discussions in recent months. Among the appointments is a former former military commander, Mohammed Fazl, who is expected to be popular among the Taliban and strengthen the bargaining power of the bureau, say the people who are familiar with the reasons for the move.
The Trump government in September called on a senior envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to lead the US negotiating effort. The White House hopes to end America's longest war while ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a base for the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other jihadists to carry out terrorist attacks overseas. The US has proposed a gradual withdrawal as Afghanistan stabilizes. The Taliban want a deadline for a withdrawal.
According to a US regulator, the Taliban control or influence about half of Afghanistan's territory. An up-to-date map of the war would resemble a piece of Swiss cheese, with state controlled areas the holes and insurgent controlled or affected areas everything else.
In some of these areas, the Taliban has set up a shadow government to collect utility bills and run schools. The leaders of the movement have been stationed in Pakistan since 2001, but now some in Afghanistan feel safe enough to spend more time there.
According to estimates by the Afghan and US governments, the number of Taliban is up to 70,000 fighters, including supporters of the underground as well as regular fighters and aid fighters. The movement has expanded beyond its ethnic base in Pashtun to Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds.
"It is able to implement governance policies in a wide area from top to bottom," says Ashley Jackson, a researcher who surveyed 20 districts that are at least partially controlled by the Taliban.
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The Taliban leadership has survived a series of clashes after the death of its founder died in 2015. The group also has more international relations than ever, even with the former enemies Iran and Russia.
Taliban fighters continue to prove that they can carry out deadly attacks throughout the country, including in the capital, Kabul. Although they were unable to hold larger cities or provincial capitals, the Trump administration deployed additional forces last year and failed to escalate the American-led aerial war.
However, the Taliban seem to be interested in exploring a peace agreement to depose Western troops and take advantage of their current strong bargaining position.
"We do not want to prolong this war, but we can fight forever," said a high-ranking Taliban involved in operations, adding that he has realized that ordinary Afghans suffer 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 military victory have vanished with American reinforcements, said Borhan Osman, an Afghanistan specialist at the International Crisis Group. The interest of the Taliban in the talks is also the fact that the Islamic State has gained a foothold in Afghanistan.
"The Islamic State has forced the Taliban to develop its own ideology that breaks more clearly than ever before with global jihadism," Osman said. "This new extremist group has made the Taliban think seriously about their political future."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in July that the Trump administration's approach, which includes open involvement of US troops in Afghanistan, has improved the peace outlook by alerting the Taliban that "they can not wait for us". Many US officials fear that Mr. Trump's patience to keep 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan will ease.
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Most Taliban leaders have concluded that after every political settlement of the war, Afghanistan needs American aid to function, say people who are familiar with internal group discussions. The group has not yet agreed to speak directly with Afghan government officials, as the Kabul government is considered the "puppet" of the United States. Kabul offered to open unrestricted peace talks with the Taliban and to recognize them as a legitimate political group.
While the Taliban are in the direction of talks with the US and Afghan governments, they are also active in other diplomatic channels.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that 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 US to send delegations to the assembly. The Afghan government has said it would send a contingent to the meeting. US officials said they would not do this.
Some members of the group insist that they do not want to return to the harshness and international isolation that characterized their regime in the 1990s. The Taliban, which resulted from a movement of rural mullahs and religious students, had banned music, banned girls from attending school, and urged the woman to wear burkas, whip them because they even showed a bit of an ankle.
The Taliban still want changes to the Afghan constitution and laws that reflect their purist version of Islam. Taliban officials may now have reconciled with women who study and work, but still demand that they be comprehensively captured and separated in public.
"Women's rights are acceptable, but we can not say that both sexes are the same," the senior Taliban official said. "We do not tell America what their laws should be, and they should not tell us what our laws should be. This is a matter for the Afghans. "
In areas that are now under the control of the Taliban, the group's record is uneven. They allow girls to go to school in some places, but only until puberty. Women often have to have a male companion to leave the house.
Since 2016, the leader of the Taliban Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deeply conservative religious authority with no background knowledge. He oversees the senior management of the group with around 30 members.
After a shaky start, Mr. Akhundzada managed to establish his leadership role by giving more influence to other key leaders and groups. Below him, Muhammad Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, who enjoys a tremendous reputation within the movement, was appointed as one of his two MPs.
With their territorial achievements in Afghanistan, some leaders are traveling there, including Mullah Yaqoob, according to western intelligence agencies. Others, including military chief Sadar Ibrahim and chief financial officer Gul Agha Ishaqzai, spend much of their time there, especially in the southern province of Helmand. This keeps them away from the intrusive hand of some elements of the Pakistani intelligentsia.
The White House urges Pakistan to play a constructive role in talks with the Taliban. Islamabad, which denies US accusations of hosting the group, has long been calling for political agreement with the Taliban. Pakistan's new prime minister Imran Khan has been demanding for years that US soldiers leave Afghanistan, saying there is no military solution.
Another concern of the US and Afghan governments is the role of the Haqqani Network, a militant allied group with the Taliban responsible for many attacks in Kabul. A figure near the network said it would not block a peace treaty.
Experts say Taliban unity, which has been largely maintained throughout its existence and will be shown in a three-day truce this summer, is notable for an uprising. This suggests that the leadership could enforce any peace treaty it has signed.
"The Taliban have strong command and control, which they demonstrated in a nationwide ceasefire with tens of thousands of fighters obeying one person," said Johnny Walsh, formerly chief adviser to the US State Department's Afghan peace process.
– Ehsanullah Amiri in Kabul contributed to this article.
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