WASHINGTON --- Despite challenges on multiple fronts, Afghanistan seems more likely than at any time in recent history to come to a favorable political settlement, according to a report released this week by the Pentagon, which cited the effects of a recent military escalation coupled with diplomatic initiatives.
In a yearly assessment required by the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon this week submitted a detailed report on the war in Afghanistan to U.S. lawmakers, detailing the country's progress and challenges in fiscal year 2018-2019.
Among the challenges facing Kabul are the lack of political stability, the capabilities of the national security force and interference from other regional powers, the report assessed.
"The current military situation inside of Afghanistan remains at an impasse. The introduction of additional advisers and enablers in 2018 stabilized the situation, slowing the momentum of a Taliban march that had capitalized on U.S. drawdowns between 2011 and 2016," the report said.
"Diplomatic, religious, military and social pressures, enabled by the conditions-based strategy, and buoyed by increased international engagement, have forced the Taliban senior leadership to debate whether to enter negotiations with the Afghan government," the report added.
Strategy in Afghanistan
In August 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration's strategy on Afghanistan and put forth a case for staying the course and not allowing the country to become a haven for terrorists who would once again pose a threat to U.S. national security.
"I share the American people's frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image," President Trump said at the time, promising to end nation-building and focus instead on U.S. national security interests.
Trump said the new U.S. strategy would shift from a timeline-based approach to a condition-based one.
The new report by the Pentagon comes as the Trump administration is reportedly considering withdrawing roughly half of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Afghanistan. No formal announcement on the potential drawdown has yet been made.
U.S. troops in the country engaged in both train-and-advise missions, as part of the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support Mission, and in counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State and al-Qaida terror groups.
The Pentagon assessment warns that Afghanistan continues to be threatened by more than 20 terror groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.
"Since October 2001, U.S. [counterterrorism] efforts in Afghanistan have prevented another large-scale terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland," the assessment said.
"However, the existence of more than 20 terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including ISIS-K [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan], requires an Afghan-supported U.S. platform in the region to monitor, contain and respond to these threats," the assessment added.
The Pentagon report also discusses regional state actors involved and engaged in Afghanistan. It adds that as part of the U.S. strategy, the U.S. military is also pushing for a regional approach to enhance stability in South Asia.
"This includes building a broad consensus for a stable Afghanistan, emphasizing regional economic integration and cooperation, stressing cooperation for an Afghan-led peace process, and holding countries accountable for their use of proxies or other means to undermine stability and regional confidence," the report said.
While engaging with several regional countries, U.S. has stepped up efforts to seek a negotiated settlement to the war and has held several rounds of direct talks with the Taliban.
Earlier this month, U.S diplomats, led by the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, and Taliban delegates concluded another round of talks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Taliban insurgents have increased their contacts with regional countries recently. A senior U.S. military official told VOA in October that the insurgent group has established ties with Iran and Russia, as both countries are vying for influence in Afghanistan.
"I think what they [Russia] are doing trying to do is they are pursuing a strategy which is to compete with us by trying to exert their influence wherever they can, whether it is in Afghanistan or Syria or anywhere else," Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told VOA.
"They [Iranian leaders] don't have any, obviously, any love for us [the U.S.] here, but I do think Iran shares concerns along their eastern border, the western part of Afghanistan, and is concerned about the threat of this emanating onto them," Votel added.
Russian officials assert the country is in touch with the insurgents to encourage them to engage in peace talks.
"We maintain these contacts primarily for the sake of the security of Russian nationals in Afghanistan, Russian agencies there, and also to convince the Taliban to renounce armed conflict and join the national dialogue with the government," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in August.
In contrast, Iran, accused by the Afghan government of providing the Taliban with money, weapons and explosives, has been less vocal about its contacts with the Taliban.
A senior Iranian security official, quoted this week by the country's official news agency, IRNA, confirmed that Iran has been in talks with insurgents.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the contacts have been made with the knowledge of the Afghan government.
The recent Pentagon report said Iran is pursuing "a multitrack strategy" of engaging and trying to grow ties with the Afghan government and the Taliban.