In a significant shift, the Afghan government and members of the Taliban have begun high-level, secret talks as a precursor to official talks aimed at ending the war.
To date, the Taliban have rejected coming to the peace table, citing the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, among other issues. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also been less than willing to talk, and while American officials support reconciliation talks, they have cited the need for all parties to accept the Afghan Constitution and renounce violence.
“The peace process takes a lot of time, but we are optimistic,” says Hamed Elmi, deputy spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Preparation for the High Peace Council?
The secret meetings began as a result of Taliban officials reaching out to local Afghan leaders and military commanders, says Mr. Elmi, deputy spokesman for Mr. Karzai. “We have brilliant people who are the 68 members [of the recently appointed High Peace Council], and I’m sure these people can bring most of the opposition [parties] to dialogue and to peace and normal life.”
Unnamed Afghan and Arab sources say that, for the first time, the Taliban’s representatives may be authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Omar, who are based in Pakistan, according to the Washington Post.
Still, a number of observers have questioned the ability of the Karzai government’s appointments for the High Peace Council to broker a lasting deal. The council is composed predominantly of fierce opponents of the Taliban who hold little sway with the Islamic group.
“If this government was really serious about having conversations with the insurgency beyond sort of cosmetic conversations, we would have seen an entirely different lineup on the High Peace Council,” says Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, noting the presence of warlords, among others, in the group. “[The Karzai] government is in no way serious about addressing the very big concerns that the insurgency has about fairness and imbalance within this government.”
In speaking with the Taliban, the government hopes the group will accept Afghan law and cut ties with terrorist organizations.
Concerns about closed doors
With the current talks taking place behind closed doors, a number of Afghans and analysts are concerned about the sorts of concessions their government might make with the Taliban.
“Human rights activists, for example, think that if the government talks to the Taliban, then we should understand what is the agenda of these meetings and that it’s not against human rights,” says Wahid Muzhda, an independent political analyst in Kabul. In particular, he says that people are concerned that the Taliban may seek a deal with the government that imposes harsher restrictions on women’s rights.
US and ISAF officials say that they are uninvolved in the current talks.
"The United States was not involved in these reported talks and is not in a position to comment on them," said US Embassy spokesman Caitlin Hayden. "Our position on reconciliation is one that we have stated consistently: The United States supports an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and reintegration that seeks to bring back into society those who cease violence, break ties with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and live under the Afghan Constitution, including provisions that protect the rights of all Afghan men and women."
Still, the Obama administration is certain to be following them closely as the president looks for signs of progress ahead of troop reductions that he has said will begin next July.
“Negotiating with the Taliban is part and parcel of finding alternative ways of bringing an end to this insurgency,” says Ayesha Khan, an associate fellow and Afghanistan specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London. “This war was meant to last a shorter time than it has and at this point there is no end in sight unless those involved put in an exit strategy.”