June 18, 2013

PAST ATTEMPTS by the Obama administration to start peace talks with the Afghan Taliban foundered in part because the process was not, as U.S. officials frequently claimed, “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” In fact, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the government of Hamid Karzai, insisting its only purpose was to arrange the complete withdrawal from the country of all U.S. and allied forces. Mr. Karzai himself strenuously objected to a plan to open a Taliban office in Qatar in late 2011, claiming he had been excluded from talks about it, and the initiative soon collapsed.

Consequently, it was modestly encouraging that the administration’s latest effort to begin a peace process, announced Tuesday, was less at odds with its slogan. An administration briefer said he expected that an initial meeting between U.S. and Taliban officials this week in Doha, where a Taliban office will open, would be “followed within days” by a meeting of the Taliban high commission and Mr. Karzai’s High Peace Council. In Kabul, the Afghan president endorsed the process, though he stressed that the talks should move “immediately” to Afghanistan, a demand that is unlikely to be met.

Direct negotiations between the Afghan government and insurgents would be a step toward a political settlement to the war. But President Obama and several of his aides were right to underline the fragility of the process. For it to succeed, the Taliban leadership will have to abandon its goal of eliminating Afghanistan’s post-2001 government and constitution and definitively break with al-Qaeda; Pakistan’s military and intelligence elite will have to conclude that such a settlement is in their interest.

There’s next to no evidence that the Taliban is prepared to undertake such dramatic reversals of its ideologies and alliances, or that it is close to being defeated on the battlefield. So the challenge for the United States will be to avoid allowing the talks to devolve into a U.S.-Taliban discussion about an abandonment of the NATO commitment to continue supporting the Afghan military with trainers and advisers after 2014. As it is, early talks may be diverted into bargaining over a prisoner exchange that would free Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a captive U.S. soldier.

U.S. officials have said they remain committed to the strategic partnership signed with Mr. Karzai’s government last year. But Mr. Obama has postponed any decision about the size or composition of a U.S. stay-on force. In a briefing Tuesday, one senior official offered a less-than-firm response to a question about the Taliban’s demand for a full withdrawal: “To the extent the talks contribute to diminishing violence and eliminating international terrorists in and around Afghanistan, that will have an impact on decisions regarding our future presence.”

Perhaps such words are meant to encourage Taliban concessions. But if there is to be a genuine political settlement in Afghanistan, the United States must drive home a different message: that it will do what is necessary to prevent a Taliban military victory for the indefinite future. If the insurgents believe they can wait out — or negotiate out — the United States, they will never engage seriously with the Karzai government.