As U.S.-Taliban talks stall, hope for political solution dims

After more than a year of sporadic contact, U.S.-Taliban talks have been stalled for months, deflating the Obama administration’s hopes that progress toward a political solution to the Afghan war would be well underway this spring.

President Obama, in a speech in Kabul last week, cited political reconciliation as one of the five pillars of his strategy to “complete our mission and end the war.” He said the administration was “in direct discussions” with the insurgents.

But senior administration officials acknowledged that there have been no meetings with Taliban interlocutors since January. The lack of progress was underscored by a rash of insurgent attacks in recent weeks and a Taliban statement last week announcing the inception of “the current year’s spring operation” against foreign military “occupiers” and anyone who assists them.

The administration had anticipated significant movement in the discussions by this month’s NATO summit in Chicago, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the alliance expect to set a course for the withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

But the political plan, intended to move alongside military progress on a parallel track, now risks falling off the rails. The approaching pullout deadline has raised anxiety among many Afghans who fear they will be left with the results of a rushed negotiation that gives the Taliban unwarranted political power, or a civil war like the one that engulfed Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The establishment of a Taliban office in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar as a venue for negotiations, which the insurgents and the United States agreed to in November, was to usher in a series of confidence-building measures between the two combatant forces. Initially delayed by objections from Karzai, it is now on hold, amid finger-pointing and allegations of bad faith on all sides.

The uncertain future has given rise to new coalitions over which the administration has little control — some designed to make peace, others to gird for battle — and has encouraged Afghanistan’s neighbors to begin planning to protect their interests.

“There’s open talk of civil war . . . between the north and the south, [and] among the south itself between the Taliban and other Pashtuns,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author who has written extensively about al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “There’s going to be a wave of attacks and offenses by the Taliban if there is no peace process,” Rashid said at a recent Washington conference on reconciliation with the insurgents.

Deadlocked over withdrawal

“The role of the United States in talking to the Taliban, in meeting with insurgents, is one and only one,” Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last month, “and that is to try to open the door to a conversation among Afghans about the future.”

There is no question that Afghans are talking to one another, but there is little indication that any of those discussions are bearing fruit. Karzai, who blames the administration for not including him in its Taliban talks, has little to show for his own discussions with the insurgents.

Administration officials counter that Karzai — whose final term in office is scheduled to end with elections in 2014 — has not been able to build political support among Afghanistan’s fractured ethnic and regional groups for a brokered solution to the war.

According to Karzai adviser Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, his government is in “formal negotiations” with Hezb-e-Islami, whose militant wing is headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. U.S. forces consider the insurgent group, known as HiG (for Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin), to be more amenable to a deal and less threatening than either the main Taliban group headed by Mohammed Omar or the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

But talks with the HiG are now on their third iteration, with peace proposals repeatedly offered by the group and then withdrawn.

The HiG and the other groups are demanding the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, a prospect rejected by both the Afghan and U.S. governments, which have already negotiated an agreement for a follow-on U.S. training and counterterrorism force beyond 2014.

Stanekzai insisted in a recent interview that there is “some flexibility” in the insurgent position on this question, as well as a “growing realization that we have to be rational” in protecting Afghanistan’s long-term security in a dangerous and competitive neighborhood. “The risk is that the [complete] departure of foreign forces will put us back as a pawn for regional fighters,” he said.

Tajiks and Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan, who ousted the Taliban government in 2001 with Americans’ help, fear that Karzai will allot positions of power to his fellow Pashtuns and have begun rebuilding militias that were disbanded after the Taliban defeat. They are openly seeking assistance from other Asian powers who share their concerns.

“They are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said one of several administration officials who discussed the sensitive matter on the condition of anonymity.

The northern leaders and many civil society activists consider an ongoing U.S. military presence as protection against Taliban expansion. But many other non-insurgent Afghans are suspicious of long-term U.S. aims and believe there will be no peace without a complete American withdrawal.

Unfulfilled deals

The administration and the Taliban differ on why discussions that seemed on the verge of a breakthrough late last year have stalled. In a statement in March, the insurgents said they had “suspended” talks after the Americans “turned their backs on their promises” made in November.

Administration officials say it is the Taliban that reneged, by refusing to uphold its end of a bargain in which the Qatar office would be opened, and five Afghan detainees were to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to house arrest in Qatar. The insurgents indicated that they would release U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom the Haqqani network has held hostage since June 2009.

The Taliban, U.S. officials said, agreed to issue public statements renouncing international terrorism — amounting to a formal break with al-Qaeda — and pledging to work with the Afghan government toward a political solution to the war. Those statements have not been made.

In the meantime, other complications have emerged. Former Afghan diplomat and international gadfly Wahid Monawar flew to Qatar and met with the Taliban on behalf of what he said was “a Texas tycoon” offering to “privately finance” the release of the captured Western official.

Although some U.S. lawmakers have objected to the transfer of any Taliban members held at Guantanamo Bay on the grounds that they could return to the battlefield, that offer remains on the table. At Karzai’s insistence, an Afghan government delegation visited the five prisoners early this year to ensure that they agreed to the Qatar move, and arranged for their families to join them there.

But a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the U.S. Defense Department and the Qatar government has been hung up on Qatar’s reluctance to impose a travel ban on the detainees unless the Taliban guarantees they would not try to leave Qatari territory.

“We’re waiting for them to respond,” a senior administration official said. “If the Taliban would tell Qatar it’s okay,” the official said, the process could be restarted.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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