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

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