If they go well, the talks will serve primarily as a test of how much the Taliban have accepted the new realities of progress in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Much has changed since 2001 when the militant group’s ruthless rule ended with an American-led invasion to oust Al Qaeda.
The talks, however, will also be a test of President Obama’s idea of keeping an “open door” to negotiating with even the most repressive, violent groups and countries. He laid out this strategy in a 2009 speech, saying jihadist groups like the Taliban should be willing to accept that the purposeful killing of innocents goes against every major religion.
Peace, he said, relies on the golden rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. “Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature,” he said. With the Taliban’s move to open talks, Mr. Obama said this is “an important first step towards reconciliation” among Afghans.
The Taliban has shown a few signs that they may have altered their ways. To meet a US condition for the talks, they committed to a peaceful end to the war. And they agreed that they never want “to pose harm to other countries from [their] soil,” although that falls short of cutting ties to a much-weakened Al Qaeda. They also dropped their demand that US troops leave Afghanistan before talks start.
In addition, the group’s fighting capability is down from a few years ago, while the capability of Afghan forces has improved. They have lost some support from Pakistan, where civilian rule, democracy, and a desire for economic growth have strengthened, weakening the military’s ability to use the Taliban as a strategic tool against India.
In fact, no major country in the region – China, Iran, Russia, and India – wants the Taliban to return to power. The world has grown more weary of jihadism, especially since the killing of Osama bin Laden and the promise of the Arab Spring among Muslim youth.
The Taliban also face a very different Afghanistan. During their rule, few girls were allowed in school; today there are 2.6 million of them in classrooms. Women run businesses and work in government. Most Afghans use cellphones and watch TV. Instead of having 37 miles of paved roads as during Taliban rule, the country has nearly 8,000 miles today. Most of all, such advances have helped to create a stronger Afghan identity and a better understanding of universal values, lessening the tribal and ethnic differences.
Yet despite all this, much doubt remains that the Taliban will give up their arms and operate as a political group under the current Constitution – especially the part that protects women from discrimination. Without that concession, Obama will find it difficult to withdraw all US military presence after 2014, when he plans to end the American combat role.
Another potential stumbling block is the Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai fears his bargaining ability has been undercut by the way the United States started the talks with the Taliban with only the hope of bringing him into negotiations later. The US will need to better deal with his concerns. The newly elected government of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan also needs to be courted in order to bolster its support of the talks.
Obama warned the talks may be bumpy. Yet even if they fail, they may have the effect of weakening the morale of lower-level Taliban fighters, further splintering the militants. A militant group that is stuck in the past and unaware of what brings peace can’t last for long.