December 05, 2012

U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks Once Again Raising Eyebrows

A throwback foreign policy move from the Obama administration has been met with both support and skepticism among Afghanistan watchers, and prompts the question: Is it a good idea to reopen talks with the Taliban?

The White House will again try to engage in peace negotiations with the militant group, according to a report Monday in theWashington Post. An ability to negotiate had been complicated by the 2012 fighting season in Afghanistan and the U.S. election cycle, both of which have now ended.

Previous peace talks collapsed this past March. By some accounts, the two sides had been talking for roughly a year.

Topics of discussion this time around will include a prisoner exchange, government officials tell the Post. A reluctant Pakistan and pessimistic response from the U.S. military may signal that a new round of negotiations are doomed.

"This appears to be an act of desperation on the part of the Obama administration," says Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. "All signs are that the president is not willing to commit the resources to win on the battlefield."

"Some in the administration appear to be hoping to talk their way out despite all the evidence that the Taliban are not serious about a negotiated settlement that does not undermine Afghanistan's stability," he says.

Others believe the timing is perfect to prepare the country for the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014.

The administration's approach is a good idea, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, provided that it is Afghan-led and the U.S. doesn't get the Taliban interlocutors killed when speaking to American officials.

The U.S. must also hold firm in discussions on several core principles, he says, including constitutional rule, basic rights of women, and the right of the Afghan government to have foreign armies on its soil in the immediate future.

Previous attempts at negotiations collapsed, including an attempt this March that ended when both sides could not agree on swapping five Taliban fighters imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held in Pakistan by Afghan fighters since 2009.

"This is a strategy that the U.S. has been pursuing for quite some time, so it makes sense to me they're trying to pursue it again," says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "Some sort of political settlement with the Taliban is seen by some in the administration as critical to moving forward in Afghanistan after troops leave."

"War is always about the political objectives," she says.

It is unlikely that top Taliban leaders will agree to political reconciliation, says Bensahel. But other lower leaders may still reach an agreement that could reduce political threats to the instable Afghan government after troops leave.

"Reaching some sort of deal where at least a good chunk of the Taliban is willing to lay down their arms, that's going to be seen as a victory beyond the military campaign," she says.