January 04, 2012

Afghan Taliban Takes Step Toward Peace Talks to End War With U.S.

The Taliban’s announcement that it plans to open an office in Qatar for peace talks with the U.S. and its allies marks the first public step toward negotiations to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan, former U.S. officials and analysts said.

Contacts between the Obama administration and the Afghan Taliban, who were ousted from power by the U.S. military in late 2001, have been secret and limited to preliminary discussions between a few U.S. and Taliban representatives over whether peace talks were even feasible, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Taliban’s announcement yesterday that it had negotiated to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf nation may prove to be a watershed because it’s the first time the militant group is publicly acknowledging it wants to talk to the U.S. and is offering a pathway to do so, former officials and analysts said.

“This is a major political step by the Taliban” that will engender resistance from its own hardliners, Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in an interview. “If the office materializes, it is a big deal.”

“It doesn’t mean things are going to be solved, but it means they’re coming out of the closet with negotiations,” he said. “It’s going from talking about talks to actually talking.”

Taliban Motivations

Nasr, now a professor of international politics at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, cautioned “that just because they agree to negotiate doesn’t mean this is a ceasefire or that they’ve thrown in the towel.” Just as the Vietcong held talks with the U.S. while continuing to fight the Vietnam War, he said, the Taliban may see negotiations as a way to expedite the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, scheduled to occur by the end of 2014.

For the U.S. side, “it would be foolhardy” not to pursue peace talks, however elusive a deal may now seem, he added. “We’re going to leave Afghanistan, so it’s better to help negotiate an agreement with the Afghan Taliban that would make our exit easier” and help stabilize the country “after we leave,” he said.

The Taliban agreed to a preliminary deal, following talks with Qatari officials and other “relevant parties,” to open a liaison office in Qatar, Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The Taliban has asked in exchange for the release of its detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Taliban said in the statement.

‘Process of Reconciliation’

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the prisoner release demand. She told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is “prepared to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation” as long as the Taliban renounces violence, breaks ties with al-Qaeda and abides by the Afghan constitution, including the protection of women’s rights.

“If this is part of an Afghan-led, Afghan-supported process, and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role and it is also supported by the host country, then we will play a role in that as well,” she said.

Nuland said U.S. willingness to participate in negotiations doesn’t change its military posture. U.S. troops will continue to fight “enemies of the Afghan government,” she said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had protested the creation of a Taliban office in Qatar, last week dropped his opposition.

Taliban Address

“If America wants the Taliban office to be opened in Qatar, then we are agreed; however, we preferred Saudi Arabia or Turkey,” Karzai said, according to a statement from his press office released on Dec. 27. “The government of Afghanistan is seriously ready to pursue the peace process and wants a Taliban address to be opened,” the statement quoted Karzai as saying.

In November, Karzai gathered tribal elders and other Afghan leaders to consider how to advance talks with the Taliban following the September assassination of chief Afghan peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.

After Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber who posed for months as a Taliban emissary, Karzai said efforts to negotiate with the Taliban were pointless and he should pursue peace talks with their Pakistani handlers instead. The U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces of aiding the Taliban and the Haqqani militant network.

Andrew Exum, a former adviser to U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, noted that military and security forces in neighboring Pakistan have thus far “been able to act as a spoiler” to any peace efforts.

Pakistani Pressure

Powerful factions in Pakistan probably are balking at the Taliban’s deal with Qatar, Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an interview. Pakistan has “exerted great effort to make any negotiated peace settlement something that would have to go through Islamabad,” he said.

Andrew Wilder, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said the creation of a liaison office is significant “because you’ve seen so little progress” until now, even though the U.S. and its allies have labored for two years to find a path to talks.

Previously, the Taliban had rejected any talks with the U.S. until all American troops were out of Afghanistan.

“I’m the first to admit that it’s a long shot, but I think it’s our only shot,” Wilder said. A “politically negotiated end to the conflict that’s relatively inclusive is the most likely to lead to any kind of durable stability in Afghanistan.”

Rustam Shah, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, called the announcement of the office “a major breakthrough in the Afghan reconciliation process.”

“It shows that the Taliban’s role as a political force has been accepted” as a factor in any national unity government that might follow a U.S. withdrawal, he said in an interview.