How important is a Taliban office?

Today’s news that the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Doha, where they have been meeting for months with Americans and Germans, has generated a good deal of chatter about the prospects for a negotiated end to the Afghanistan war.  That seems overblown to me.

But it is also indicative:  the Americans are suing for peace.  Vice President Biden’s statement that the Taliban are not our enemy was not a gaffe but a signal, as we said here right away.  The Taliban have now indicated that the signal was received and appreciated. There are also indications that they expect release of some prisoners from Guantanamo.

It will be interesting to see if that happens–it is not an easy move for President Obama in the lead-up to an election campaign in which his presumptive opponents are more likely to criticize him for failing to make a maximal effort in Afghanistan than for staying too long.  He may try to portray the move, if it comes, as a transfer of prisoners to the control of the Karzai government, as an expected aspect of the U.S. withdrawal and turnover of security responsibility to a fully sovereign government.

The opening of the office is important not so much for establishing a clear channel for communications–that has likely already been done–but also because it begins to establish some clarity about the leadership structure on the Taliban side.  The Americans are not going to want to negotiate with more than one or two insurgent forces in Afghanistan.  It appears that the Doha office will be one that claims to speak for Mullah Omar, who led the Taliban government in 1996-2001.  It is less clear to me whether it can speak for the Haqqani network or other Taliban forces. We may well be expected the Pakistanis to deal directly with the Haqqani network, which at times has appeared to be an adjunct of the Pakistani inter-services intelligence directorate (ISI).

What does this portend for a peace settlement?  Hard to tell of course, but I’d put a small amount of coin on the proposition that a role in governing parts of Afghanistan is on offer to the Taliban, with consequences for women and human rights more generally that can only be described as odious.  Even if all the words on paper call for protection of women’s rights, getting implementation will be nigh on impossible.  When you sue for peace, you don’t get everything you want.  Secretary of State Clinton had better be ready to gather whatever women’s rights crumbs she can as the men slice and dice Afghanistan.

Here is Hassina Sherjan, Founder of Aid Afghanistan for Education and co-author of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan” at Harvard Law School, telling her audience that wearing a burqa made her take six Advils a day:

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