January 4, 2012

ONE WEAKNESS of the Obama administration’s emerging initiative to negotiate with leaders of the Afghan Taliban is evident in the misleading rhetoric with which it is described. On Tuesday, State Department and White House spokesmen carefully distanced themselves from an announcement from the Taliban that it would open an office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar — “we’ve seen these reports of some kind of preliminary agreement with regard to an office for Taliban political activity,” said State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland — while insisting that the process was “Afghan-led.”

In fact, as The Post has reported, the pending deal to open the Qatar office has been driven by the Obama administration, which has been secretly negotiating with the Taliban — and the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai has been all but dragged into accepting it. A far more honest description of what is occurring came Wednesday from the office of the Afghan president: “Afghanistan,” said his statement, “agrees to U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations and a liaison office in Qatar for the Taliban.”

So far, in other words, the negotiations with the Taliban have been anything but “Afghan-led.” The danger is that they will end up serving the short-term interests of an administration eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible — rather than serving the interests of Afghans or an enduring peace.

Consider the position struck by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in his statement. Mr. Karzai’s government is ignored; the “two main parties involved,” it says, are the former Taliban government and “the United States of America and its foreign allies.” It goes on to demand that senior Taliban leaders be transferred from U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay prison — a step the Obama administration reportedly has been considering.

This would be a huge and unjustified gift to a group that is weaker than it has been in years. The Taliban leaders involved in this initiative, based in Quetta, Pakistan, have seen their forces devastated on the battlefield during the surge of U.S. troops. (The Taliban faction that currently represents the biggest military threat, the Haqqani network, is not involved in the talks.) If it is created, the Qatar office will put the beleaguered Quetta group and its fanatical leader, Mohammad Omar, back in the center of the struggle over Afghanistan’s future, before it has stopped fighting or made any other significant concession. Most likely the group is following the playbook of North Vietnam during the Paris peace talks: Exclude the U.S.-allied local government and refuse political concessions while offering the United States a smooth path for removing its troops.

In fairness, Mr. Karzai has repeatedly changed positions on negotiations; he recently persuaded a national conference to support them. U.S. officials, for their part, say the administration still insists that in any peace deal the Taliban will have to “renounce violence, break ties with al-Qaeda, [and] support the Afghan consititution in all its elements, including human rights for all its citizens,” as Ms. Nuland put it.

In the near term, however, the focus of any talks probably will be on “confidence-building measures” more helpful to an accelerated troop withdrawal — such as the creation of cease-fire zones. Will the Obama administration, and U.S. troops, be there to back the Afghan government when the Taliban — as can be expected — refuses to accept democracy and rights for women? Mr. Karzai’s wariness is understandable.