The recent news that the Taliban plans to open an office in Qatar and pursue negotiations with the United States has raised a number of important questions — for the United States, for Afghanistan’s future, for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and for the war on terror.
There are always risks in talking with any terrorist group, and the Taliban are no different in this respect. Most knowledgeable observers believe that the Afghan security forces, individually or with the assistance of the U.S. and ISAF, will not be able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, at least anytime soon. This means that some type of negotiated solution is the best near-term bet to halt the fighting.
What is interesting is why the Taliban has agreed to a formal diplomatic process now. In a sense, this opening is not really a new development. The United States has been talking to, and with, the Taliban since the Clinton administration, when the U.S. asked that it hand over Osama bin Laden. What is new is that this marks the first time that a formal diplomatic process is being established to broker an end to the conflict.
No one can be sure as to the Taliban’s motivations, which could range from general war fatigue, to wanting a halt to U.S. Predator strikes and night raids, to wanting the Obama administration transfer some of its high-ranking members from Guantanamo to Qatar. It is also possible that the latest diplomatic moves could merely reflect the desire of only one faction of the Taliban to explore a peace deal; every insurgency or terrorist group appears from the outside to be more coherent and unified than they are in reality.
Who, precisely, represents the "Taliban" in these talks is not a trivial matter. In 2010, the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government pursued talks (and transferred funds) to an individual purporting to be Mullah Omar’s number 2. In reality, he was a Pakistani convenience store owner with a beard.
The administration seems to have road-tested the credibility of the Taliban officials who will be sitting across the table in Doha, but questions remain in at least three areas. The United States still needs to determine: (1) whether the Taliban officials sitting across the negotiating table represent themselves, a small faction, or a broader constituency, (2) whether they have the authority to impose any agreement on the mujahedeen in the field, and (3) whether they have a genuine interest in a permanent halt to the conflict on terms that are agreeable to the United States and its Afghan partner (e.g., renouncing ties to al Qaeda, laying down their weapons and supporting the Afghan constitution).
Of course, talking to the Taliban is not cost-free. Harm may be done to the relationship between Washington and Kabul. After the Taliban killed the chief Afghan negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last September, President Hamid Karzai stated that he would no longer negotiate. Karzai subsequently opposed the idea of talks when it was initially floated, recalling the Afghan ambassador from Qatar, and he did not immediately support the talks when they were formally announced last week, suggesting that he still has grave reservations and is being dragged reluctantly by the Obama administration into this process.
Previously, both Washington and Kabul had agreed that any peace process would have to be "Afghan-led." Clearly, that has not happened and represents a significant conceptual difference between the U.S. and its key ally before the talks have even started. This will complicate the U.S. and Afghanistan coordinating future negotiating positions. And, at some point down the road, Kabul is going to have to take the lead and "own" this process if it stands a chance of success.
Karzai’s grudging reluctance is partly explained by the Taliban’s stated desire to talk only with the United States, in an attempt to marginalize and delegitimize the Karzai government. (Of course, this effort is assisted by the Karzai government’s well-documented shortcomings, especially its institutionalized corruption.) The Taliban may also believe that it can extract better terms from an Obama administration eager to exit the battlefield and wind down its participation in the war than from a Kabul government that will have to deal with the consequences of an imperfect peace agreement.
Ideally, these complications should have been worked out methodically and patiently in advance of any public announcement of a peace process, thereby minimizing the embarrassment to our Afghan ally and giving the talks a greater chance of succeeding. The fact that they were not suggests that the Obama administration may have an unrealistic notion about the time-frame needed to have this inchoate process yield tangible results. The history of similar negotiations between states and terrorist and insurgent groups indicates that the process always takes longer than government officials think, to be measured not in weeks or months, but in many years and even decades. (For example, the Northern Ireland peace process took thirty-five years; Spain’s engagement with the Basque separatist group, ETA, is ongoing after more than half a century.)
Ultimately, any talks cannot succeed without Pakistan’s support, since Pakistan provides sanctuary to the Taliban and their families in the border areas with Afghanistan. Islamabad’s attitude, or more precisely, the attitude of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), is unknown, but it is unlikely that it would have allowed the Taliban to proceed this far if it reflexively opposed the talks. It may have calculated that openly preventing the talks from going forward would have needlessly aggravated further its relations with Washington, especially since it may believe the talks have little chance of success. And allowing the talks to proceed at this point will not preclude the ISI from pressuring the Taliban to walk away at any point in the future if it feels that Pakistan’s equities are at risk.
A further complication of the United States now talking publicly with the Taliban is that it complicates the Obama administration’s message to our soldiers in the field, to the American people and to our allies: Is the Taliban our enemy or our negotiating partner? In reality, it may be both. But this is a perilous path for any government to navigate, as Vice President Joe Biden discovered with the uproar over his recent comment that the Taliban is not our enemy.
The administration’s challenge would have been made less problematic if it had pre-wired some type of gesture or concession from the Taliban, such as a temporary cease-fire in a province or region. Perhaps one is already in the works and will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead. But until then, the administration appears to be more eager for the talks than the Taliban — never a strong negotiating position.
Bottom line: at this point, the administration has exposed itself to a diplomatic process it cannot fully control, with an ally that is not fully committed, and with an adversary it does not fully understand.