With a gloomy National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan summarized in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post reporting on resumption of peace talks with the Taliban, and the New York Times unveiling the tortured history of the negotiations so far, it is time to consider again the prospects for a negotiated outcome to the war.
For all the heavy breathing and interesting reporting about the negotiations, there is still a lot that is unclear.
The Americans keep on saying the Afghans have to lead the process, but there is little sign of that. The Americans and Europeans had to bludgeon Karzai into accepting the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, which is no more than a modest but useful preliminary step in the negotiating process. Karzai seems more than a little concerned that his largely Northern Alliance-originated opposition, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s, is not prepared to accept a settlement that brings the Taliban back into Afghanistan’s political life. Will he run the political risks involved?
It is unclear whether that office will represent all the Taliban, or only Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura. How the Haqqani network, which does a good deal of the damage in Afghanistan, fits in no one seems to know. But the Taliban have already let it be known that the Youtube video apparently showing American Marines desecrating Taliban bodies will not make them shy away from talks.
The role of Pakistan is also uncertain. In the past, Islamabad has gone out of its way to prove that no negotiations can go ahead without its consent. U.S. drone strikes have resumed in Pakistan, but are the Pakistanis ready to support a U.S.-sponsored negotiating effort headquartered in Qatar? Islamabad is absorbed at the moment in its own internal power struggles between the civilian government and the army, which was displeased this week when the prime minister fired one of its favorite defense ministers. Maybe the Pakistanis are distracted? Or are they on board?
The agreement to open the office requires an American quid pro quo: release of several Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. This is not easy for any American Administration to do, especially as the people the Taliban are asking for presumably really are deadly enemies of the United States. Is President Obama prepared to run the gauntlet of criticism he will get for this in the middle of a reelection campaign?
It is being hinted that the Taliban are prepared to forswear support to international terrorism as part of this deal. A verifiable pledge of that sort would be more than a confidence-building measure. It would represent a major diplomatic achievement: separating the Taliban from Al Qaeda. In principle, this is conceivable, since the Taliban’s ambitions are largely limited to Afghanistan (and Pakistan), whereas Al Qaeda is waging a global war for establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The opening of the office in Qatar is certainly not something Al Qaeda would support. But do we really have a verifiable commitment of this sort?
We also need to remember the difficult choices that lie ahead for the United States. If the Taliban are going to lay down arms, they are going to want something in return. There isn’t much to offer. There is a role in governing Afghanistan nationally, a role in governing provinces where the Taliban are strong, and control over economic resources (drugs, minerals, trade and transport). Or more likely, some combination of those things.
Oh yes: and American withdrawal. It is hard for me to picture the United States, which has sought from Karzai a long-term strategic agreement providing for a continuing American presence after 2014, agreeing to withdraw completely. But it is also difficult to picture the Taliban accepting a continuing U.S. presence, which is what they have always said they are fighting against. Compromise on this issue is theoretically possible: a U.S. military training presence but complete transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans, for example. But I’m not sure our soldiers are going to be comfortable living and working with an Afghan army that has lots of Taliban reintegrated. Nor is it easy to picture the Taliban comfortable with the kind of presence such a training mission would require.
All that said, I applaud Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Representative Marc Grossman, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and their German partner Ambassador Michael Steiner for the enormous effort they have made over the past year to open up a negotiating channel. It would not, of course, have been possible without the extraordinary military efforts the U.S. troops have made. If the Taliban are ready to talk, it is because at least some of them are tiring of the fight.
But we are still far from peace, and the fog is thick.