In a recent trip veiled in secrecy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the two countries of Iraq and Afghanistan on the same day.
Reports indicated that Tillerson flew to Iraq from Qatar, and later traveled to Kabul. Many media sources emphasized the significance of Tillerson’s trip for his efforts in Iraq smoothing out political turmoil amongst US partners there. After recent clashes between Kurds and Iraqi government forces, America wants to make sure its allies in the region are going to be able to maintain cooperation.
The more important half of Tillerson’s trip however, likely pertains to US policy in Afghanistan. President Trump’s troop surge to the country in late August was certainly a high handed move. It signaled the administration's willingness to plow forward in the fight against the Taliban.
The surge came with another message, however.
From the moment the gears of the troop surge started to turn, US officials had already begun extending olive branches. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphasized during his previous visit to Afghanistan as the surge was underway, the long-term hope of the US is to work with the Taliban and incorporate them into the future of the country.
Recent statements by Tillerson have been even more explicit. Media sources reported on Monday the Secretary’s belief that “there are moderate voices among the Taliban.” He stated that America hoped to “engage with those voices[...]leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government, there’s a place for them if they’re ready to come renouncing terrorism.”
While the purposes of Tillerson’s trip to the Afghan capital haven’t yet been publicized, nor is it clear if they ever will be, there seems to be little doubt that one of the main purposes was to more actively explore this effort of reaching out to elements within the Taliban that are willing to talk.
The US strategy is essentially right now a delicate balance. A prominent show of force while keeping the door open to reconciliation. This brings with it the risk that the Taliban will only perceive this a show of weakness. Indeed the facts on the ground don’t exactly indicate a stop to the violence. Right off the bat, the Taliban began taking every opportunity to show that it would not roll over in the face of the American troop influx. During the aforementioned trip to Afghanistan by Mattis, the Taliban orchestrated a massive barrage on Kabul airport, an attack many believed to have been an attempt on the Secretary’s life. In terms of the situation on the battlefield, US officials in the Pentagon have reported a surge in explosive attacks in the country over the past several months.
Moreover, recent Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces have cast doubt as to whether government troops are still anywhere near capable of facing militants alone. The recent storming of an Afghan army base in Kandahar and an attack on a training center in Kabul serve as poignant examples.