Buckle up. Talking with the Taliban won't be easy.

The Taliban announcement that it would open an office in Qatar is a first step toward talks. But history shows that negotiated withdrawals are often designed to test the patience of the departing Army. 

Hoshang Hashimi/AP/File
Former Taliban militants walk to hand over their weapons during a joining ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan, Dec. 28, 2011. About 10 former Taliban militants from Herat province handed over their weapons as part of a peace-reconciliation program.

It’s possible that after years of fits and starts, unprecedented talks may finally begin between the US government, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.

While the Taliban's new openness seems be a leap forward for the peace process and also bears the stamp of approval of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, negotiations are almost certain to be rocky. History shows they’re also likely to test the patience of the US.

On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid made the announcement:

We are at the moment, besides our powerful presence inside the country ready to establish a political office outside the country to come to an understanding with other nations and in this series, we have reached an initial agreement with Qatar and other related sides.

But at the end of his statement, posted on the Taliban’s website, Mr. Mujahid quashes hopes of negotiation:

Apart from this, the perturbing reports spread by some news agencies and Western officials about negotiations have no reality and are strongly rejected by Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Buckle up

Though this may come like a slap to many Americans who see a decade of armed presence in Afghanistan as time enough for the Karzai administration to get its act together, American officials surely must know by now that any discussion with the Taliban is not going to be easy.

The Taliban, after all, are primarily driven by nationalist sentiment, the desire to drive out foreign forces.

Years of drone attacks and Humvee patrols have hardened the attitudes of some Afghans, and the inefficacy of the Karzai government to extend its authority and governmental benefits beyond Kabul has left many other Afghans ambivalent, at best.

All this will make the Taliban a very prickly partner in discussions, prone to demands that both the US and Karzai governments may find unreasonable.

And if President Karzai has misgivings about talking with the Taliban, he’s not showing it.

Karzai set up a High Peace Council and assigned former President Burhanuddin Rabbani to lead talks with willing Taliban members. (Rabbani was assassinated last year by one of those Taliban, who exploded a bomb hidden in his turban as he entered the room to see him.)

Arsala Rahmani, spokesman for Karzai’s High Peace Council, also put a brave face on the situation, telling reporters in Kabul, "It is important for the Taliban to negotiate with the international community, especially with the US, and we welcome their decision to set up a political office. It is a gesture of good faith."
 

Should the US be negotiating with the Taliban at all?

But Fauzia Kofi, a liberal Afghan parliamentarian, told the Washington Post that talks with the Taliban could actually undermine much of the progress made during the past 10 years to create a democratic Afghanistan.

 “History is repeating itself. This may result in bringing the Taliban back to power. None of our achievements have been systematic, and they can all collapse at any time.”

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the US government supports a political solution to the Afghan conflict and would play a supporting role in talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban.

 “We have a policy here based on three principles: fight, talk, build,” she said according to the Afghan newspaper Khaama Press.

Setting up an office is the first step toward having talks, Ms. Nuland added.

“We’ve seen in many other conflict situations that you have to have a political address if you’re going to begin a political conversation. The Afghans themselves have said they are frustrated that the Taliban do not have a political address.”

Talks are risky, and failed talks can be fatal to a political career during a US political campaign. 

The Vietnam example

Take the Vietnam war for example: In the midst of the war, the Johnson administration agreed to a cease-fire to allow peace talks with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese government in Paris.

Those talks failed in the final hours before the 1968 US presidential elections, and Democrats accused the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, of sabotage, sending emissaries to Paris to encourage them to hold out for a better deal with a Republican administration. The rumors were never proved, and in any case, after President Nixon took office in January 1969, no investigation was held. Still the it haunted him throughout his term.

The Paris Peace talks ended with a cease-fire agreement on Jan. 27, 1973 – and with Nobel Peace Prizes for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho – but fighting continued until the final US evacuation from Saigon on April 29, 1975.

Among the 135,000 Vietnamese who fled to the US after the fall of Saigon were many former South Vietnamese political and military officials.

Perhaps liberal lawmakers like the Afghan parliamentarian, Fauzia Kofi, has reason to worry.  

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