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Taliban peace talks hold glimmer of hope, but also unanswerable questions

No one is predicting an easy road ahead for the peace talks. One key question: How united are the Taliban’s political and military wings behind this latest reconciliation effort?

By Staff writer / June 18, 2013

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (r.) shakes hand with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen after a joint news conference in Kabul, June 18, 2013. Afghanistan will send a team to Qatar for peace talks with the Taliban, Karzai said on Tuesday, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition launched the final phase of the 12-year war with the last round of security transfers to Afghan forces.

Omar Sobhani / Reuters

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The announcement by US officials Tuesday of imminent peace talks between the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban adds an additional hopeful note to a day when NATO formally announced the full turnover of security leadership to Afghan forces.

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The announcement of talks reaches toward the US goal of advancing Afghan reconciliation before the departure of all US-led NATO troops from Afghanistan by December 2014. Still, no one is predicting an easy road ahead, let alone guaranteed success after years of sputtering peace initiatives.

Even US officials announcing the upcoming talks were cautious about prospects for a dialogue that is to start with US-Taliban discussions as early as Thursday. That dialogue would be quickly followed by direct negotiations between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives.

Tuesday’s developments “represent an important first step towards reconciliation -- a process that, after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, will certainly promise to be complex, long, and messy,” a senior Obama administration official said, adding, “Nonetheless, this is an important first step.”

One reason for the US optimism – as tempered as it may be – is that the Taliban released a statement committing to two principles that the United States had been calling on the Taliban to publicly adopt: One is simply that the Taliban support an Afghan peace process, while the second is that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries.

In other words, Al Qaeda shouldn’t expect to look to the Taliban for support to return to Afghanistan.

The Taliban released the statement in Doha, Qatar, where they will open an office and where the talks will start.

Yet the announcement of talks leaves unanswered a number of other key questions that are likely to determine prospects for a peace process. Among them:

  • How united are the Taliban’s political and military wings behind this latest reconciliation effort? 
  • Will Afghanistan’s influential neighbors – first among them Pakistan, but also Iran and even India – see fit to support (or instead, sabotage) a promising peace process?
  • What becomes of the three preconditions for Afghan peace talks that the US long insisted the Taliban had to accept: renouncing violence, cutting all ties with Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and abiding by the Afghan Constitution and Afghan laws, including concerning the rights of women?

US officials now say that the “outcome” of any peace process must be full adherence by the Taliban and other insurgent groups to those three conditions – characterized by a senior administration official on Tuesday as “end conditions.”

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