Time to Negotiate in Afghanistan

How to Talk to the Taliban

Partners for peace? Afghan Taliban joining a reintegration program, January 2012.  MOHAMMAD SHOIB / REUTERS

Peace talks, if not peace itself, may be close at hand in Afghanistan. Over the past few months, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban have made unexpected strides toward talks. In early May, members of the Taliban and the Afghan government even met in Qatar and expressed real interest in starting official negotiations—a heartening step.

Since 2001, opportunities for peace talks have come and gone. Sometimes, the process has stalled for political reasons, such as the United States’ reticence to engage with the Taliban. Other times, discussions have broken down due to miscommunications or a lack of political consensus. It was not until 2010 that the United States fully embraced peace talks as the best way to end the violence in Afghanistan, and even then, progress was slow and halting.

But this time may be different. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new president, has placed peace talks at the center of his agenda. Pakistan and China both appear willing to help jump-start the process. And the Taliban themselves have hinted that they may be willing to support an end to violence.

The United States must seize the moment, doing what it can to move the peace process forward. Washington will need to employ a mix of carrots and sticks while remaining committed to Afghanistan’s security. It should help Afghan forces hold the line on the battlefield, pressure Pakistan to keep the Taliban at the table, and accept that in the end some concessions will be necessary. Most important, it will need to stay flexible on the withdrawal timeline and dedicated to supporting Afghanistan into 2017 and beyond.

Of course, peace talks may not yield a lasting peace. In 2007, the political scientist James Fearon noted in these pages that just 16 percent of civil wars and insurgencies end through a negotiated peace settlement. But even if negotiations are a long shot, they are the best option for Afghanistan and the United States. To stick with the status quo would be to consign Afghanistan to a

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