The Taliban had been preparing for months to make Tuesday’s important and surprise announcement that the Afghan insurgency was prepared to open formal negotiations with the U.S. in the Gulf state of Qatar. The U.S. reacted positively, immediately saying that American negotiators will arrive in Doha, Qatar’s capital, for the talks within the week to begin the dialogue. President Obama called the Taliban’s move “an important first step toward reconciliation,” though he acknowledged that “there will be a lot of bumps in the road.”
Certainly there are many potential obstacles that could impede any progress to end the nearly 13-year-old war since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. For one thing, it is unclear if hardline Taliban commanders truly favor the talks. Similarly, senior members of the Afghan government, including President Hamid Karzai, seem skeptical of the Taliban’s statement and their motives. Karzai has always insisted that any negotiations be “Afghan led,” and so far it’s unclear what role, if any, Kabul’s representatives will play in the Doha talks.
But it seems the Taliban have swallowed a bitter pill and have decided to talk to Karzai’s representatives soon after they talk to the Americans later this week. Taliban spokesman in Doha, Mohammed Naim, says that the Taliban delegation will meet representatives of Kabul’s High Peace Council, the Kabul entity entrusted to negotiate with the insurgents, even though they are part of Karzai’s “puppet regime.” “We will talk to them,” he says, “and they are coming in the next few days.”
The attitude of neighboring Pakistan is also a question mark. It has great leverage over the Taliban, directing the war and supplying their guerrillas in the field. At least for now, Islamabad seems to be supporting the talks, for it must have greenlighted the start of formal discussions for the Taliban to have agreed to open the dialogue.
But Pakistan’s long-term position on the peace process is unclear. And it is uncertain if the Taliban will agree to Washington’s and Kabul’s bottom-line demands: that the insurgents lay down their arms and accept the Afghan Constitution. Finally, there is the ongoing and heating-up conflict on the ground, which could derail any progress.
The insurgents did, however, finally publicly agree to Washington’s two main demands for the process to start. The Taliban have pledged not to allow Afghan soil to be used again as a springboard to attack other countries, such as they did with 9/11, when they played host to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The insurgents have also pledged that they hope for a peaceful end to the war. Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naim, who made today’s announcement on Qatari television, promised that his movement’s goals “are limited to Afghanistan,” and that it did not wish to “harm other countries.”
That is exactly what President Karzai fears: that the Taliban will turn the Doha talks into a forum to give the insurgency widespread political legitimacy.
What made Naim make his surprise announcement is unknown. But it would seem that the insurgency’s ruling council, the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, was behind the move. It had supported the beginning of the tentative process in 2011, when it allowed Tayyab Agha, a former senior aide to fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, to begin talking to European officials and then to U.S. representatives in Doha. The Taliban then broke off preliminary talks in Doha with the U.S. early last year, accusing the U.S. of reneging on its promises, in particular those related to the release a handful of senior and powerful Taliban leaders from the lockup in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. For the insurgents, prisoner releases have always been among the highest, if not the most important, item on the negotiating agenda. Getting some of its senior leaders freed must still be a Taliban priority, though it is a difficult demand for the U.S. to meet.
Over the past few months the shura, doubtlessly with Pakistan’s assistance in providing passports and visas, has sent several senior envoys and their families to Doha to join Agha in preparation for any potential talks. Over the past two months the Taliban delegation has moved out of guesthouses and rented more comfortable, even luxurious, apartments in Doha.
For the Taliban, the Doha talks are more than simply an opportunity to chat with Washington officials. “Opening the office will give us a window onto the world,” says Zabihullah, a moderate senior Taliban political operative. “We hope it will lead to a wide-open door for us.” According to him and other Taliban officials, the insurgency hopes through its Doha office to improve relations with the super-wealthy Gulf countries, the European Union, the United Nations, and other international organizations. “We want to make relations with the international community, end the foreign invasion, and bring peace and security to Afghanistan,” adds Zabihullah.
That is exactly what Karzai fears: that the Taliban will turn the Doha talks into a forum to give the insurgency widespread political legitimacy. And many other Afghans are skeptical of the Taliban’s motives. They worry that the insurgents won’t be flexible but instead adhere to their uncompromising positions of the past.
“Opening an office is one thing, but acting in the office properly and constructively is another,” says an Afghan government diplomat in the Gulf who doesn’t want to be named. “What will we do if the Taliban keep riding their old donkey in their new office?” Like most Afghans, he believes that Pakistan and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency will be calling the shots from behind the scenes. “There are ISI guys in Doha who might sabotage any proper peace deal,” the Afghan diplomat adds. “We simply doubt the sincerity of the Taliban and Pakistan.”
There are some positive signs, though, to be found elsewhere. A Taliban commander in strategic Helmand province tells The Daily Beast that he hopes the talks will succeed. “For me as a fighter, peace talks are strange,” he says. “But let’s hope whatever happens will be to the benefit of Islam and Afghans.” Taliban political operative Zabihullah is hopeful too. “If the hardliners let Tayyab Agha do his work, there is a possibility for peace in Afghanistan,” he says, referring to the Taliban’s lead negotiator. “But there are elements among the Taliban and the Afghan government who want to sabotage this opportunity.”
A major flare-up in the fighting is another factor that could torpedo the talks. “If both sides work hard for a ceasefire, then there is hope,” says a European Union diplomat in Islamabad who requests anonymity. “But if the Taliban attacks big in Kabul, and the Afghan government hits back hard, that would be a serious setback for any peace hopes.” Indeed, a crucial question is, can the two warring parties control their forces to allow confidence and progress to be built in Doha?