Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's offer of unconditional talks to the Taliban is an opportunity for the two sides to negotiate an end to the decades-old conflict in Afghanistan. In addition to promising the Taliban recognition as a political party, Ghani has offered a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, permission to set up an office in Kabul, etc. The Afghan President's offer is generous and unprecedented. It is in the interests of the Taliban to accept the olive branch he has offered. The Taliban response to Ghani's offer has been cool so far. Countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China, which are in touch with the Taliban's leaders and have leverage, must convince it to respond positively. The group will benefit from accepting Ghani's offer. It will gain respectability and legitimacy, and perhaps even access to political power should the talks culminate in a power-sharing arrangement. These are goals that the Taliban are unlikely to gain on the battlefield. While the organisation has made major gains since 2014 when US troops withdrew from Afghanistan - it is believed to be active in around 70% of the country - outright victory over government forces remains elusive. And increasingly, the Taliban is having to compete with Islamic State fighters in its own backyard.
The US-backed Afghan government has tried the military option to defeat the Taliban. It has not proved fruitful. Sheer desperation is forcing Ghani to try the political route. Since this is the only option left, Ghani must pursue talks robustly. Several major players, including India, Pakistan and Russia have come out in support of the Afghan government's offer. Despite its hostile history with the Taliban, India has done well to set aside its own apprehensions to extend a hand of support to Ghani at this critical juncture. The US has not issued a formal statement yet, but Ghani is unlikely to have announced the offer without consulting the Americans first.
Undoubtedly, the road ahead is a minefield. Ghani's military, intelligence agencies, coalition partners and opposition political parties will oppose his peace overture as they do not trust the Taliban. There will be factions within the Taliban, too, that will fiercely oppose talks. Too many countries and armies, militias and intelligence agencies have benefited from the business of war in Afghanistan. They will do their utmost to derail any attempt at peace. While the government has done well to go the extra mile to accommodate the Taliban, it must avoid going overboard. It should not give up the gains made over the past 16 years. It must not yield to Taliban demands on women's rights, for instance, or on key liberal features in the Afghan constitution.