Talking to the Taliban


There was an inevitability about the announcement that the US will open talks with the Taliban from the time back in 2009 when US generals began openly saying that a military victory in Afghanistan was impossible. The choice would be prolonged bloody stalemate, or talks on a political settlement, notwithstanding long-touted objections to negotiating with terrorists.

A logic analogous to Northern Ireland’s early peace process would also begin to be played out, with US diplomats starting three years of secret meetings through diplomatic back channels to lay the basis for talks. And, like the North ahead of key turning points, an elaborately choreographed dance was this week being performed: the Taliban opened a diplomatic office in Qatar for the talks; the US handed over control of military affairs in Afghanistan to the Afghan army and the government of Hamid Karzai; and the Taliban announce that they want a peaceful settlement – though have no intention of halting attacks – and “would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan.”

The latter statement, a distancing of the organisation from Al Qaeda, was a US precondition for talks, although it also reflects an evolution in the Taliban that has been underway for some time and the reality that Afghanistan’s Al Qaeda base has become far less significant. US officials say that they hope talks can bring a full disavowal of Al Qaeda as well as movement towards recognising the Afghan constitution, particularly the rights of women. An exchange of prisoners – some senior Guantanamo Taliban for a captive US soldier – is also on the cards. Progress, however, is likely to be slow.

Although the US says its involvement is intended to help facilitate an accord between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and that talks between the two will open shortly, its unilateral diplomacy has infuriated Karzai. His office said yesterday it was suspending talks with the US on a security pact that will stipulate how many of its soldiers will stay in Afghanistan after most are pulled out by the end of next year.

Karzai appears to be most preoccupied with the optics of the Qatar Taliban office opening which he sees as the first step in creating an enhanced international diplomatic presence and outreach, and so a form of political legitimacy, for the Taliban.

The latter, in their statement on Tuesday, seemed to confirm as much, offering an expansive view of the role of the office. It would allow them “to improve relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks,” and help establish contact with the UN, aid groups, and the media.

It is unlikely that Karzai will block talks altogether, and that would be unfortunate, but the bad-tempered exchange does not bode well. But, talk they must.