US-Taliban talks: What are the prospects for success?

Preliminary US-Taliban talks could resume within weeks, although they must first receive the blessing of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has run hot and cold on such talks in the past.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton holds private talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany, in December 2011. Preliminary US-Taliban talks could resume within weeks, if Karzai's blessing is received first.

A flurry of under-the-radar diplomatic activity has suddenly put talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban back on the rails.

But the ultimate objective of those talks – reconciliation among Afghan parties aimed at ending the decade-old Afghanistan war – still faces a long list of hurdles. Those include the ability of warring Afghan parties to talk to one another, how the US handles its long-held demand that Afghans preserve newfound political and human rights in any settlement, and the kind of role Pakistan chooses to play in helping or hindering peace talks.

Still, the sudden opening may be the last best opportunity for eventually launching serious negotiations before US and other foreign troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, US officials and some regional experts say.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Wednesday with Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, signaling US backing for the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. That office would serve as a “neutral” venue for the Afghan insurgents to prepare for eventual reconciliation talks with the Afghan government.

Any peace talks by the Afghan parties would be preceded by preliminary US-Taliban talks, according to US officials. The preliminary talks, which US officials say could resume within a matter of weeks (after stopping in October), must first receive the blessing of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Karzai has run hot and cold on such US-Taliban talks in the past. He insists he wants to leave his country in peace when his term ends in 2014, but he also vetoed a tentative US-Taliban deal reached in December.

Marc Grossman, the administration’s envoy on the Afghanistan conflict, is to travel to Kabul next week to seek Karzai’s sign-off on the preliminary talks, US officials say.

Expectations of a green light from Karzai were tamped down to some degree by Wednesday’s surfacing of a video showing what appears to be US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Senior US officials including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary Clinton were quick to condemn the video, and a Taliban representative said the video would have no impact on his group’s openness to talks. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the video "is not a political process, so the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange because they are at the preliminary stage."

But a Karzai representative suggests the video could derail moves toward talks.

The US has long held the view that the Taliban would only move seriously toward peace and reconciliation after the Afghan government and its international partners made substantial gains both on the battlefield and in the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people – by providing services and expanding the possibility of living stable, prosperous lives.

But US officials, including in the military, have also acknowledged that the war would ultimately have to come to a political settlement. The US signaled a seriousness about negotiations in February 2011 when Clinton, in a New York speech to the Asia Society, modified a US position – that prerequisites to reconciliation talks were the Taliban renouncing violence, cutting links to Al Qaeda, and accepting the Afghan Constitution.

Those demands remained “unambiguous red lines,” Clinton said, but they would now be viewed as the “necessary outcome of any negotiation.”

The US has been secretly meeting with a Taliban representative over recent months, although the US was nevertheless caught off guard by the Taliban’s announcement last week that it intends to open a Qatar office. The US has also pursued diplomatic channels among allies and in the region to assess support for reconciliation talks.

Experts analyzing the evolution toward talks and pondering why they may resume now say a number of factors have played a key role – from the pounding that the Taliban is taking from international and Afghan forces, to the killing last year of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, to even the influence of the Arab Spring.

Mr. bin Laden’s demise may have convinced more Taliban that their association with Al Qaeda was a dead-end street, while the Arab Spring – and in particular the political gains that Islamists are making in countries like Tunisia and Egypt – may have encouraged some Taliban officials and followers that the political route may be the best way to go.

The administration remains realistic about the prospects for reconciliation talks, especially in any near-term. And US officials are well aware that “talking with the enemy” presents a range of challenges and could come back to bite President Obama, particularly in an election year.

Clinton appeared determined to answer the anticipated criticisms from opponents of talks when she said after meeting with Qatar’s prime minister, “If you’re sitting across a table discussing a peaceful resolution to a conflict, you are sitting across from people who, by definition, you don’t agree with and who you may previously have been across a battlefield from.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to US-Taliban talks: What are the prospects for success?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today