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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Yet, in the weeks before bin Laden’s death, several moves occurred that could fortify the diplomatic track in Afghanistan even as the war enters a period that is expected to be particularly violent:Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Talking to the Taliban
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•Turkey has offered to let the Taliban open an office there, according to Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the former Taliban ambassador to the United Nations and member of the High Peace Council, a body set up by Karzai to lead the peace process that includes both former Taliban members and warlords. This would establish a third-party location for talks to occur.
•Pakistan and Afghanistan have established a high-level commission to facilitate peace talks. This group has real decisionmaking power since it includes top elected officials, representatives of the foreign services, and – crucially in Pakistan – top representatives of the militaries.
Experts disagree over the degree of influence Pakistan has over the Taliban leadership. But most think that Pakistan can at least bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistani officials themselves are cagey on the question, since they want to be seen as indispensable without being viewed as playing both sides in the conflict.
"We are very clear we don't want to be [at] the table...," says Mohammad Sadiq, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan. "We would like to facilitate it, support it, in whatever way is possible."
•The US has signaled it is willing to talk. In a speech in February before the Asia Society in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US is ramping up a "diplomatic surge" that follows increases in military and civilian deployments.
"Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends," said Secretary Clinton. "But that is not how one makes peace. President Reagan understood that when he sat down with the Soviets."
•The biggest breakthrough, however, may be a convergence between the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Hizb-e-Islami, one of the insurgent groups, about what the goal is: a balanced government for a unified Afghanistan.
Until recently, Pakistan appeared to be obstructing talks in order to dictate its own conditions: Any new government must be "friendly" to Pakistan and keep India at a distance. Speculation also swirled that Islamabad wanted Kabul to formalize the Durand Line, the border drawn by the British in the 19th century between the two countries, which Afghanistan has never formally recognized.
"First we have to reach a peace agreement with Pakistan, then reach a deal with the Taliban," says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of Afghanistan's parliament from Kandahar, reflecting the common perception that any peace deal goes through Islamabad.
Karzai has made several goodwill gestures toward Pakistan, including dismissing a pro-India intelligence chief, inking a transit agreement with Pakistan, and making Islamabad the first stop of his new High Peace Council.