Talking to the Taliban: rough road ahead

The Karzai government is talking to the Taliban in hopes of ending the war. But the outlook for these talks is as cold as an Afghanistan winter.

High-level Taliban are reportedly holding peace talks with the Afghan government, but don’t throw the confetti for the war’s end yet. The road to reconciliation is as steep and rugged as the mountains where Taliban hide.

Yes, a political solution must be part of resolving the war in Afghanistan. As US Gen. David Petraeus says, “You are not going to kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency.” The general is chief commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But it would be a mistake for the American public to view these preliminary talks as a quick ticket home for US troops. Many challenges lie ahead, including:

There is no top Taliban to talk to. The Washington Post reported today that the Afghan government is speaking with representatives of the Quetta Shura. That’s the Afghan Taliban group whose leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, hides in Pakistan. Mr. Omar used to head the Taliban government in Kabul before he was ousted by US troops and an Afghan alliance in 2001.

But not all Taliban follow Omar. And another powerful group, the Haqqani network, is a separate faction more closely tied to Pakistan. The Taliban of pre-2001 had a hierarchy, and what was decided at the top flowed down. That no longer exists.

Other countries have to be involved. Let’s say internal reconciliation were reached (more on that in a moment). To hold up, it would have to have buy-in from other countries with an interest in Afghanistan. That means involving Pakistan, which favors the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan’s south (the Taliban’s home base). And it means bringing in Iran, Russia, and India, which are traditionally allied with Afghan minorities in the north.

The United States can potentially play a role here, bringing these many country players together – but the players have historically had conflicting interests and it won’t be easy to line them up.

Is internal reconciliation possible? The US and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are supposedly on the same page about what “red lines” can’t be crossed in negotiations: Insurgents will have to uphold the Afghan Constitution, especially its provisions for women’s rights; they must forswear Al Qaeda, which once had a haven in Afghanistan under Taliban rule; they must lay down their arms.

But the Taliban and Haqqani network deplore the Constitution. They are theologically driven authoritarians who justify killing civilians for their goals. For the sake of peace, however, Mr. Karzai might be inclined to yield on the Constitution. A nonbinding statement from an Afghan “peace jirga” conference in June calls for the strengthening of Islamic law – exactly what the Taliban want.

Afghan women’s rights groups fear the worst. They’re incensed, for instance, that women make up only 10 percent of the members in a new High Peace Council, which is meant to lay the groundwork for negotiations with insurgents.

Meanwhile, leaders of the three main ethnic minorities that banded together to help overthrow the Taliban now say that Karzai – a Pashtun – is selling them out. They promise resistance if the Taliban returns.

Who’s got the strength? If negotiations progress, the extent of concessions will depend on which side is stronger. NATO forces now are at the peak of their surge, but their progress is slow. The Taliban, on the other hand, have tenacity and staying power, though some reportedly are tired of fighting and would like to return home from their base in Pakistan.

It is no wonder, then, that Petraeus sounds so noncommittal about these talks – supporting them, but also distancing himself from them.

“We’re not the ones calling the shots,” he said in August. “At the end of the day, those who will determine whether reconciliation goes forward or not are those who lead the Afghan government.”

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