In a significant breakthrough toward peace, Taliban representatives and the US have finally agreed to talks in Qatar. The date was timed to coincide with the official US handover of security duties to the Afghan police and army, and was announced to the media at the Belfast G-8 summit. The step reflects the long overdue need for a political-diplomatic dimension to the US exit strategy from Afghanistan.
American officials, especially in Congress, have been reluctant politically to be seen talking with the Taliban because of its having provided a haven to Al Qaeda militants at the time of 9/11. A condition of the new agreement is that the Taliban officially reject Al Qaeda. That is not likely to happen any time soon, although the Taliban will agree to prevent the re-emergence of Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
But last week, the House of Representatives cast a super-majority of 305 votes on an amendment to H.R. 1960, endorsing “robust negotiations” with “all interested parties” as well as expedited troop withdrawals. The House resolution provides important cover for the administration’s engagement with the Taliban, especially since the resolution was approved by an unusual 120 Republican members. H.R. 1960 then passed 315 to 108.
Taliban commanders have been divided on whether or when to shift from armed struggle to the negotiating table, and whether to accept any role for the Karzai regime they denounce as illegitimate.
By agreeing to talks, the US side is admitting that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the Afghan battlefield. On the other hand, the US will be able to save face by pointing to the elimination of terrorist sanctuaries. If the US also can salvage a degree of “face” for its ally Karzai, then that, too, will be face-saving for national security elites’ superpower reputation.
The divided Taliban’s militant wing may see the talks as a way to facilitate the departure of US and NATO troops before resuming a military offensive on Kabul. But since that surely would trigger resumption of a civil war, the Taliban leadership may see a military-political-diplomatic strategy as the best path to eventually replace the Kabul regime with a negotiated power-sharing arrangement and achieve widespread power at local levels.
Like other peace processes from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, this one is likely to be prolonged and complicated. However, it contains important milestones by which progress is measurable. Those to come include:
- A reduction of US-NATO troop levels (68,000 US, 34,000 NATO) by 50 percent at the end of 2013;
- A final reduction to near-zero by December 31, 2014;
- Afghanistan’s presidential election in April 2014, followed by parliamentary elections the next year.
The US may seek a residual force of 6,000 to 10,000 to remain after 2014 for training and counterterrorism purposes.
Since the two sides have proven able to meet this week’s planned agreement, it is possible that the ultimate transition will proceed on schedule.
The issues to watch will include these:
- Whether the US and Karzai will accept a ceasefire in place, one which leaves the Taliban dominant in southern Afghanistan and having a presence in contested provinces;
- Whether elements of the former Northern Alliance will accept a de facto partition or initiate a new civil war;
- Whether the US and NATO can find a peacekeeping rapprochement with Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran;
- Whether power-sharing negotiations flounder;
- Whether the Taliban concedes women’s and educational rights as part of a compromise settlement;
- Whether the US phases out drone strikes over Pakistan’s Taliban sanctuaries as an inducement to the peace process.
For more, please see also by Tom Hayden, "Crisis in U.S.-Taliban Talks."