Taliban peace talks hold glimmer of hope, but also unanswerable questions

No one is predicting an easy road ahead for the peace talks. One key question: How united are the Taliban’s political and military wings behind this latest reconciliation effort?

Omar Sobhani / Reuters
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (r.) shakes hand with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen after a joint news conference in Kabul, June 18, 2013. Afghanistan will send a team to Qatar for peace talks with the Taliban, Karzai said on Tuesday, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition launched the final phase of the 12-year war with the last round of security transfers to Afghan forces.

The announcement by US officials Tuesday of imminent peace talks between the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban adds an additional hopeful note to a day when NATO formally announced the full turnover of security leadership to Afghan forces.

The announcement of talks reaches toward the US goal of advancing Afghan reconciliation before the departure of all US-led NATO troops from Afghanistan by December 2014. Still, no one is predicting an easy road ahead, let alone guaranteed success after years of sputtering peace initiatives.

Even US officials announcing the upcoming talks were cautious about prospects for a dialogue that is to start with US-Taliban discussions as early as Thursday. That dialogue would be quickly followed by direct negotiations between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives.

Tuesday’s developments “represent an important first step towards reconciliation -- a process that, after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, will certainly promise to be complex, long, and messy,” a senior Obama administration official said, adding, “Nonetheless, this is an important first step.”

One reason for the US optimism – as tempered as it may be – is that the Taliban released a statement committing to two principles that the United States had been calling on the Taliban to publicly adopt: One is simply that the Taliban support an Afghan peace process, while the second is that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries.

In other words, Al Qaeda shouldn’t expect to look to the Taliban for support to return to Afghanistan.

The Taliban released the statement in Doha, Qatar, where they will open an office and where the talks will start.

Yet the announcement of talks leaves unanswered a number of other key questions that are likely to determine prospects for a peace process. Among them:

  • How united are the Taliban’s political and military wings behind this latest reconciliation effort? 
  • Will Afghanistan’s influential neighbors – first among them Pakistan, but also Iran and even India – see fit to support (or instead, sabotage) a promising peace process?
  • What becomes of the three preconditions for Afghan peace talks that the US long insisted the Taliban had to accept: renouncing violence, cutting all ties with Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and abiding by the Afghan Constitution and Afghan laws, including concerning the rights of women?

US officials now say that the “outcome” of any peace process must be full adherence by the Taliban and other insurgent groups to those three conditions – characterized by a senior administration official on Tuesday as “end conditions.”

Although the US gave up on acceptance of the three points for the talks to start, some US officials note that the Taliban’s agreement to oppose the use of Afghan territory for launching attacks on other countries is tantamount to acceptance of the no-Al Qaeda demand.

In his comments in Kabul Tuesday marking the full turnover of the lead in security operations from NATO to Afghan forces, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also played down the setting of any demands or preconditions for the upcoming peace talks.

"We don't have any immediate preconditions for talks between the Afghan peace council and the Taliban, but we have principles laid down," Mr. Karzai said. A renouncing of violence by all sides will be one immediate goal of any talks, he said, while he also underscored his desire to see talks move to Afghanistan as soon as possible after starting, to reduce the influence of other countries.

What role Afghanistan’s neighbors will play in the nascent reconciliation process remains murky. But no one doubts that Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership resides and which tolerates Taliban fighter havens on its soil, will play a key role.

Secretary of State John Kerry delayed a trip that he had planned to make this month to Pakistan and India and that had Afghanistan atop the agenda. Pakistani officials, who say they were told the delay was due to the Syria crisis, now indicate the trip will take place in July.

Afghan officials, and indeed Afghans in general, tend to blame “our neighbors” and Pakistan in particular for their country’s unending war. Pakistan is perceived as willingly sacrificing Afghanistan’s stability to maintain an influential role there.

But the leaders of Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government insist that their country supports reaching a negotiated settlement in the Afghan conflict. Secretary Kerry will be able to test the sincerity of that claim when he visits.

But perhaps the most crucial issue facing the peace process is how united the Taliban will be behind the effort over the coming months.

Senior Afghan officials involved in reconciliation efforts said in comments to the Monitor last month that signals from Taliban leaders continued to be mixed and “confused,” with some factions suggesting an interest in pursuing a peace process while others demonstrated a prevailing interest in pursuing the summer fighting season and even planning ahead for efforts to disrupt next April’s national elections.

Indeed, one of the biggest potential challenges to any peace process will be the same one that has long been present, some regional experts say: the divisions in the Taliban’s vision for the way forward. What happens if the Taliban’s political leadership based in Pakistan signs on to a peace accord, only to have military leaders in the field reject the peace and vow to keep fighting?

The Taliban said in their statement that their overriding goal is the end of what they consider to be the “occupation” of Afghanistan by foreign forces.

The Taliban have long refused to engage in talks with Afghan officials, since they consider the government to be the “puppet” of the US. But recently, some Taliban leaders have suggested that the Taliban is no longer set on returning to govern the country through military means.

The opening of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, represented by the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, will be no guarantee of an end to Afghanistan’s three decades-plus of war. But it will at least suggest an expanding interest in finding an alternative to more violence and fighting.

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