Can US and Taliban cut a deal in Afghanistan?
Even before Osama bin Laden's killing, the Taliban were softening their image while the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan set the stage for talks. Now the US must decide if it's worth years of further military and diplomatic effort to hammer out an agreement.
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So far, the schools of the region – boys' and girls' – remain open, says Khan Wali Salarzai, a reporter based in Kunar Province with Pajhwok Afghan News. "In some areas which are completely out of the government control, these schools are observed by the Taliban," who are even making sure teachers are not delinquent.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Talking to the Taliban
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The more conciliatory rhetoric from the Taliban side – to the extent it really is conciliatory – comes at a time when the US has been signaling that it, too, might be more open to talking to the enemy, and a new vision for a postwar Afghan government is emerging. Top officials from the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan reveal a common goal of resolving the underlying tensions that have torn Afghanistan apart for three decades – and at least the foundation of a shared vision for peace.
Under one scenario outlined by officials in all three countries in recent months, power would be rebalanced among all ethnic groups and warring parties, not just President Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban. This would be attempted through a central coalition government and decidedly not by carving up Afghan territory among various factions.
Behind the nascent political movement on both sides may be weariness over a war that has now dragged on for a decade – longer than any conflict in US history. Neither side seems poised for a quick or complete victory, the killing of Mr. bin Laden and successes of the year-old US "surge" in southern Afghanistan notwithstanding. Al Qaeda has little operational role in the Afghan insurgency. And the Taliban have responded to losses in the rural south with a series of dramatic suicide attacks inside cities and coalition ranks.
There’s also a ticking clock. The Obama administration set 2014 as the deadline for withdrawing US troops from the country.
Yet forging a peace won't be easy in a land that has lived by the sword for centuries. The US is not likely to be easily impressed by the girls-education talk from insurgents who once beat women just because their socks slipped, revealing their ankles below their burqas. An even bigger question looms over whether the Taliban are ready and capable of entering a political process that favors messy compromise over the purity of holy war.
Still, the recent seemingly calculated comments from Taliban members at least suggest the emergence of a new pragmatism.
"The talks that we are able to observe and comment on are the ones that involve everybody except the Taliban, and there's no coincidence in that," says Michael Semple, a Harvard University fellow, former diplomat, and informal mediator in the Afghan talks who frequently travels to the region. "I would say that in the contacts I have in the [insurgency] movement … they realize that politically something will happen – which is a change."
Bin Laden strike improves conditions for talks
In several ways, the knockout of bin Laden improves conditions for talks.
By sending helicopters across Pakistani territory and storming an urban compound, the strike sends a message to insurgent leaders that their havens are not so safe. It also creates an additional opportunity for the insurgency to cut links to Al Qaeda, says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist based in Lahore, Pakistan.
The ties between Afghan insurgents and global jihadi organizations are based more on interpersonal relationships rather than ideology, he says. One key relationship, the friendship between Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, is now removed.
“Some elements may be loyal to the ideals of Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think that kind of element within the Taliban movement can win the argument when they think about their strategic priorities with Osama gone and Al Qaeda not as potent a force,” says Dr. Rais.