KABUL -- Continued pressure on the battlefield from Afghan and coalition forces and repeated urging from the international community to join the peace process have put the Taliban in a bind, observers say.
The latest push for peace came from an international conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which ended with a clear message to the Taliban: miss this chance to negotiate for peace or suffer the consequences.
Representatives from more than 20 nations and organisations participated in the March 26-27 conference on "Peace Process, Security Co-operation and Regional Connectivity", reaching a consensus on "strong backing for the [Afghan] National Unity Government's offer to launch direct talks with the Taliban, without any preconditions".
A "political settlement that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" is essential to ending the war, according to the "Tashkent Declaration" signed by all participants.
The Taliban did not send a representative to the conference, despite repeated calls to participate.
Taliban wavering after battlefield losses
As the pressure mounts both in the international political arena and on the battlefield, the Taliban are considering abandoning previous red lines on the path to peace.
In a statement published February 26, the Taliban requested direct talks with the United States to find a peaceful solution to the war in Afghanistan.
Two days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled his government's plan to open peace talks with the Taliban, including eventually recognising them as a political party. In return, Ghani said the militants should recognise the Afghan government and constitution, a perennial sticking point in past attempts to open talks.
The Taliban responded to Ghani's peace plan with silence, indicating a debate among the militants, according to analysts.
Now is the best time for the Taliban to negotiate for peace, said Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warning that a mounting air and ground campaign against the insurgents would only grow in intensity.
"This really is probably their best time to attempt a negotiation, because it's only going to get worse for them," he said March 14.
"The pressure coming from the United States ... on the battlefields on the one hand, and the pressure exerted on [the Taliban's foreign] supporters on the other, has resulted in the Taliban abandoning their previously non-negotiable red lines, [including] agreeing to negotiate with the United States on providing peace and security in Afghanistan," said Mohammad Aref Kyani, a military analyst based in Herat Province.
"This change in the Taliban's policy reveals the effectiveness and success of the US strategy in Afghanistan and the region," he told Salaam Times, adding that since December "Afghan air and ground forces as well as international coalition forces have carried out heavy blows against Taliban strongholds".
"The Taliban, however, have tried to conceal their consecutive defeats on the battlefield by carrying out several deadly suicide attacks in crowded areas of Kabul," he said. "Nevertheless, the Taliban offering peace negotiations [with the United States] clearly reveals that they have been crippled on the battlefield."
Bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table
The Taliban's indication that they are ready to join peace talks with the United States "is directly linked to US military and political pressure on the Taliban", said Zaheer Sadaat, a representative from Panjshir Province in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament).
"This is the first time the Taliban have spoken about peace and negotiations in a soft tone, which has the sound of defeat in the background," he told Salaam Times. "Nevertheless, we welcome it."
Air strikes against Taliban funding sources have contributed to this change in tone, Sadaat said.
"Drugs are the Taliban's largest source of income, and dozens of their drug factories have been destroyed by the [NATO-led] Resolute Support Mission," he said.
The warnings from Afghan and US forces and mounting battlefield losses "also exerted further pressure on the Taliban and forced them to give a green light for negotiations", Sadaat said.
If the international community keeps up the political and battlefield pressure, "the Taliban will have no alternative but to negotiate and [accept] peace", he said.
Peace is only way forward
"The new US [military] strategy proved to the Taliban that the United States and other international supporters of Afghanistan will remain in Afghanistan until peace is established," Safiullah Hashemi, deputy chair of the international relations committee in the Meshrano Jirga (upper house of parliament), told Salaam Times.
"The Afghan government, Afghan security forces and their international supporters are invincible on the battlefield," he said.
"With the Taliban giving a green light to negotiations, hopes for ending the war in Afghanistan through civil and peaceful methods have increased," Hashemi said.
"The main objective of the US strategy is to defeat the terrorist groups, especially the Taliban, and to force the Taliban to come to the negotiation table," Turiali Ghiasi, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Salaam Times.
"The US strategy dealt heavy blows to the Taliban," he said. "Such blows made them realise that worse [blows] may follow should they refuse to negotiate."
The strategy has been successful and has "brought us a few steps closer to defeating the Taliban and achieving peace", he said.