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. Washington's granting the request would be a classic confidence-building measure. Taliban rank and file are obsessively fascinated with the fate of detainees in American custody. If the Taliban leadership gets some of them back, it will be in a better position to justify engagement with the West to its followers and commanders. 

The Taliban often makes the point that the stronger power has to make the first gesture. In this case, a properly calibrated and sequenced prisoner release is a gambit that the strong power -- the United States -- can afford to make. Those released could be parked safely in Qatar with minimal risk of their somehow joining the insurgency. More important, Washington, at little cost, would be able to see whether the Taliban can deliver something useful in return for the United States' offering. Information recently leaked by Washington insiders indicates that the administration is already preparing the release of half a dozen or so former Taliban leaders. In other words, it, too, has calculated the overture to be worth it. This position is a world away from that of years past.

Also different is that now, in their own ways, both Kabul and Islamabad are on board. One of the working principles of peacemaking in Afghanistan is that any successful deal requires a Pakistani blessing. Afghan insurgents base their operations in Pakistan, and the hope is that, as part of a peace deal, Islamabad would remove such safe havens. After years of refusing, it might be ready to do so. Pakistan can rightly claim that it was one of the earliest voices calling for talks with the Taliban. For now, at least, its security agencies have refrained from creating obstacles in the way of the Qatar process and so seem confident that the process poses no threat to Pakistan.

Likewise, any deal that the Americans reached without the Afghan government's blessing would be worth little, as the government would have to be a principal in any cease-fire deal or eventual political deal. Of course, Karzai has a track record of mistrusting any initiative he feels he does not control directly. And Kabul has reason to suspect that the Taliban's opening a liaison office in Qatar is an attempt to loosen Karzai's grip over the Afghan political process. But for now, the regime has received enough reassurances -- or so it would seem, considering his willingness to go along.

Qatari participation changes the equation, too. Among Muslim countries, Qatar makes sense on a logistical level because that is where all the preparatory work took place, including the brainstorming sessions that generated the office idea and the early meetings with the Taliban's leadership envoy. More broadly, under the stewardship of the House of Thani, Qatar has emerged as a base for energetic, enlightened Sunni conservatism, qualities that resonate in Afghanistan. The Qatari leadership has shown that it can deftly handle controversial policies, such as, earlier this year, its support to the Libya opposition. That know-how could prove beneficial as Afghan reconciliation undoubtedly proves a bruising experience.

So what happens next? Here is one scenario: the United States delivers detained Taliban figures from Guantánamo to reasonable accommodation in Qatar. In turn, the Taliban concedes a willingness to engage and calls for a negotiated end to the conflict. The Taliban floats the idea of a more general prisoner release, including the setting-free of captured Taliban fighters who are currently being held in Afghanistan or even Pakistan. The Americans nod, but politely respond that such a deal will be possible only when the war ends.

Until now, the Taliban has had the luxury of one-way communication. It issues announcements without having to stick around and engage in debate. That changes with a liaison office. The Taliban will soon discover the political difficulties inherent in sustaining a "fight and talk" strategy. With the office, officials will find themselves pinned down with complaints about their military's recklessness in killing civilians. In a hint that it already recognizes as much, the Taliban was quick to disassociate itself from the Kabul and Kandahar Ashura bombings in December -- an example of how the movement is preparing for the challenge of greater visibility. Until recently, it frequently claimed credit for operations against civilian targets, such as the Intercontinental Hotel. But such moves would be deeply embarrassing for any political office with a permanent address.

As soon as you dare consider the optimistic scenario and imagine a speedy end to the war, however, you confront very real obstacles. Here are but a few. First, token prisoner releases have to be on the table as first-order confidence-building measures. In a U.S. election year, that is unlikely. Second, in Afghanistan there is little sign of anyone having prepared the Taliban base for the idea that it will have to compromise with the old Northern Alliance and with Karzai's government in Kabul. There is little doubt that many Taliban will go into this process holding their fallback option close: wait for NATO to draw down troops in 2014, then fight for control of Kabul. Worse, the Qatar office could turn out to be little more than a Taliban ploy for tactical advantage, especially if it uses the office deal to seek international recognition without making any compromises with fellow Afghans.

Beyond the risks, Washington would have two huge, complicated tasks once the office opened. First, get Kabul fully on board. Karzai has, however grudgingly, come around to saying some of the right things, but in recent days, his High Peace Council has oscillated between unhelpful and irrelevant. It unilaterally announced ten conditions on any talks before it would grant its blessing. It looked for the Taliban to call off the insurgency and to recognize the constitution before talks begin. Of course, in so doing, the Council simply highlighted its marginal role -- the demands were completely out of touch with reality. 

The United States' second task concerns Pakistan. The late ambassador Richard Holbrooke knew very well that any endgame to the war in Afghanistan would involve Islamabad. The reality is that, even when the liaison office in Qatar opens, the bulk of the Taliban leadership and the whole of its command structure will still be in Pakistan. Islamabad's cooperation in ensuring that reconciliation works would thus count for a lot. Considering the dismal state of U.S.-Pakistani relations, this could be the toughest part of all.

Some in the West scoff at even the notion of reconciling with the Taliban, considering it a vicious group that rules by brute force, that has killed thousands of allied troops, and that subjugates women. But ten years of security-led strategies have neither rid Afghanistan of the Taliban nor split it from al Qaeda. Now, at last, there is some sign that engagement, negotiation, and diplomacy might at least open up the possibility of bringing the three-decade-long war in Afghanistan to an end. Without giving peace a chance, any gains that Afghanistan or the United States might have made after a decade of intervention are unlikely to last. Considering even the most significant risks, it would still be better to move forward cautiously than to not engage at all.

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