David Ignatius
Opinion writer January 10, 2012

For some intrigue at the start of this new year, take a look at the secret diplomacy under way between the United States and the Taliban. Most observers are skeptical the process will produce any breakthroughs, but it’s interesting that the talks are taking place at all.

The path toward negotiations was charted publicly last Feb. 18, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a framework for a political settlement of the Afghanistan war. Though it wasn’t widely noticed, she dropped previous U.S. preconditions for Taliban participation, such as renouncing al-Qaeda and backing the Afghan constitution. These were termed “necessary outcomes” of negotiations, rather than prior requirements.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

U.S. and Taliban representatives had already met in secret in Germany when Clinton gave that speech, and they have met repeatedly since then, mostly in Germany and Qatar, for a total of about a half-dozen sessions. The next step is for the Taliban to open an official office in Qatar and begin discussions with the Afghan government.

The U.S. representative at these talks has usually been Marc Grossman, who took over the post of special representative for Afghanistan after the death of Richard Holbrooke. A retired diplomat with the quiet, self-effacing manner of a George Smiley, Grossman has been the opposite of the gregarious Holbrooke, but that has probably been helpful with a skittish adversary.

The Taliban representative has been Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. Agha is a narrow-faced, bearded man who speaks good English and is said to conduct himself professionally. After stories by me and others about his role last May, Agha was said to have disappeared — but that turns out to have been a cover story. In fact, he continued meeting with U.S. officials through the summer and fall, with the most recent session taking place in October.

Agha emerged as a credible Taliban emissary after secret meetings with German government officials in 2010, joined by U.S. officials that November in Munich. The pace of contacts stepped up after Grossman was appointed last February.

Grossman’s first challenge was to establish that Agha really represents the Taliban leadership. So tests were devised to establish his bona fides. The United States would ask Agha, say, to post a notice on an official Taliban Web site — and provide the text in advance. By last summer, the United States concluded that Agha was the real thing.

The meetings with Agha so far have been what diplomats call “confidence-building measures.” That process includes the opening of the Qatar office — and the transfer to Doha of about five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo, whom the Qatari government has promised to hold under “house arrest.”

The hope was to announce the Qatar office at an international meeting in Bonn on Dec. 5. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai balked at the last minute, fearing that he didn’t have a consensus back home for negotiation. And it’s true enough that many Afghans are wary of any deal with the Pashtun insurgent group. But details began leaking in Kabul, and after the Taliban said on Jan. 3 that they were ready to open the Qatar office, Karzai announced his support the next day.

The Taliban are supposed to make statements soon rejecting international terrorism and supporting a political process in Afghanistan — first steps toward eventual renunciation of ­al-Qaeda and support for the Afghan constitution. The Taliban have also agreed that the Qatar office won’t be used for recruiting or propaganda. It was the Taliban who requested Qatar as the hub, countering U.S. and Afghan proposals of Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

What about Pakistan’s role in this delicate process? Well, it hasn’t stopped Agha’s contacts on behalf of the Taliban. And the head of Pakistani intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, personally delivered Ibrahim Haqqani, a son of the chief of a fearsome Taliban group known as the Haqqani network, to a meeting in August with a U.S. official in the United Arab Emirates. That meeting went nowhere, and it was followed by renewed attacks on U.S. targets by Haqqani operatives who, according to U.S. officials, continue to receive funding, intelligence and other assistance from Pakistani intelligence.

If the Qatar office is indeed opened, U.S. officials hope the Karzai government and the Taliban will exchange confidence-building measures of their own — say, a Taliban rejection of suicide bombings in return for government safe passage.

It’s a long shot, but it’s also true that all wars end eventually — starting with a process something like this one.

davidignatius@washpost.com