With the American-led war in Afghanistan well into its tenth year, Afghan and American officials are laying the foundations for a Taliban office in Qatar, something that could prove a critical step toward negotiating a settlement to the war.
At this point it's just negotiations. But among American and NATO officials, talks with the Taliban have become a major priority in the past year. If Afghan, Western, and Taliban representatives agree and officially establish a political office for the Islamic organization, it will provide a more direct means of communication and serve as a symbol that Afghan and Western officials are serious about negotiations.
Along with creating a physical address for the Taliban, a confidence-building measure of releasing several Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay into house arrest is also being considered.
Over the course of the past year, reconciliation efforts with the Taliban and other insurgent groups have seen a number of false starts, setbacks, and outright failures. Most recently, this month American officials who claimed they were near a breakthrough with the Taliban saw negotiations crumble due to objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Despite difficulties, both Afghan and Western officials have continued to look toward reconciliation as the most likely means of ending the war here. Creating an official headquarters for the Taliban would provide a much clearer conduit for officials to communicate with the Taliban, and help avoid further missteps, such as inadvertently negotiating with imposters, as happened in November 2010.
“If the Taliban intend to operate from an office in Qatar, we could see a development in the peace process,” says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “An office in Qatar for the Taliban would make them more independent of Pakistan and the ISI. It would give them more ground to maneuver in the peace process with the Afghan government and the international community.”
Alternative to Pakistan?
Presently, most of the Taliban leadership is believed to be based in Pakistan. International and Afghan officials hoped Afghanistan’s neighbor would act as an interlocutor in potential talks. Those hopes have faded amid recent tensions, culminating in Pakistan’s boycott of the second Bonn Conference to discuss Afghanistan’s future earlier this month.
Negotiations took another hit this month when Mr. Karzai put an end to talks between the Taliban and the US and Germany, saying he would not support negotiations that excluded the Afghan government. The president pulled his diplomats from Qatar in protest of the Qatari government not consulting Kabul about establishing a Taliban office there.
But Qatar makes sense geographically, with the small emirate a hub of travel to and from Afghanistan. After the brief squabble, talks seem to be moving slowly forward once more, with Karzai saying earlier this week that he would support the creation of a Taliban address in Qatar, but that he would prefer a location in Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
“The Afghan government and Karzai emphasized that they should be included in the process. They’re afraid that if they are left out of this process it won’t work,” says Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, director of the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan. “The three sides of this political triangle are the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the international community, especially the United States. Therefore, the Afghan government wants to be a part of the process and aware of what’s going on.”
Now that Afghan and Western officials have agreed on the potential creation of a Taliban office, the next major sticking point may prove the release of Taliban prisoners in American custody. Among others, the Taliban has asked for the release of Mohammed Fazl, a senior member of the organization who stands charged with a number of crimes committed against Afghan Shiites during the Taliban’s rule.
Aside from complications getting American congressional approval to release Taliban detainees, particularly as the US turns towards a presidential election, there is also debate whether they would be released to house arrest in Afghanistan or a third country like Qatar near the proposed Taliban headquarters.