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.
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.”