How to Talk to the Taliban

An Office in Qatar Changes the Rules of the Game

Members of the Kabul High Peace Council, May 2011. (isafmedia / flickr)

Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid's announcement last week that the group will open a political office in Qatar is part of a process that could bring a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan. To be sure, naysayers abound both in the region and in Washington. But, conditions in 2012, unlike those in years past, offer a realistic, if difficult, opening for a way forward.

For more than two years, Washington, NATO, and the Afghan government have conducted a kind of one-sided courtship, trying to bring the Taliban leadership to the table. Before the January 2010 London Conference, Kabul adopted a doctrine professing that the Taliban leadership was predominantly moderate and, accordingly, that reconciliation would be a priority. Afghan President Hamid Karzai followed up by publicly inviting the Taliban to talk, stage-managing jirgas that reinforced his message and shoehorning veteran anti-Taliban mujahideen leaders into a "peace council." Tepid at first, Washington eventually got on board, too.

But the Taliban never came to the table. In fact, the ill-fated process produced some disastrous results. Even so, in private discussions I had with some Taliban leaders, they took quite pragmatic stances, laying out what real negotiations would look like; there were positive hints about the Taliban's willingness to talk, too, in the group's published communiqués. But the latest announcement is a game-changer. It is unambiguous confirmation that the Taliban is taking real steps toward serious political engagement and reconciliation.

A process that leads to a reconciliation in Afghanistan, before NATO troops go home, might sound too good to be true. It might be too good to be true, in fact. But its chances now are better than they have ever been before.

With the olive branch from the Taliban, of course, comes a demand. Zabiullah made it clear that the Taliban expects the United States to release some of its members who are currently being held in the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

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