US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a surprise visit to Kabul this morning, hoping to move forward on a reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Hamid Karzai government.  Kerry arrived as the US armed forces transferred control of the last American prison in the region to Afghanistan:

Secretary of State John Kerry paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday for talks with President Hamid Karzai, a official said, with both sides hoping to stabilize the country before most foreign troops leave by the end of 2014.

Kerry and Karzai will discuss a host of issues including Afghan reconciliation, the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces and Afghanistan’s elections, the official told reporters.

Karzai’s government is trying to open formal negotiations with the Taliban, who have remained resilient in the face of superior NATO firepower in the war now in its 12th year.

Karzai is due to travel to Qatar within days to discuss the peace process and the opening of a Taliban office for conducting negotiations. The trip comes after years of stalled discussions with the United States, Pakistan and the Taliban.

Commenting on Karzai’s trip, the official told reporters: “I wouldn’t want to overplay it but I think that it’s a very positive sign. It’s another step on a continued path toward … getting to some sort of reconciliation process.

“Nobody is expecting that he will open an office there in a week. Nobody is expecting that he will be sitting down with Taliban in a week. This is a long process and this is one more small but positive step in that … process.”

The transfer of Parwan Detention Facility took a year after the agreement brokered between Washington and Kabul, and it marks an end to US custody of Afghani fighters, as well as others, in the nation torn by war for more than thirty years.  However, the US will have to brace itself for a wholesale release of suspected terrorists held without charges under “administrative detention”:

Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Dunford handed over Parwan, located near the U.S.-run Bagram military base north of Kabul, at a ceremony there after signing an agreement with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.

“The transfer of the detention facility is an important part of the overall transition of security lead to Afghan National Security Forces. This ceremony highlights an increasingly confident, capable, and sovereign Afghanistan,” Dunford said.

An initial agreement to hand over Parwan was signed a year ago, but efforts to follow through on it constantly stumbled over American concerns that the Afghan government would release prisoners that it considered dangerous.

A key hurdle was a ruling by an Afghan judicial panel holding that administrative detention, the practice of holding someone without formal charges, violated the country’s laws. The U.S. argued that international law allowed administrative detentions and also argued that it could not risk the passage of some high-value detainees to the notoriously corrupt Afghan court system.

An initial deadline for the full handover passed last September and another earlier this month.

On the other hand, things may not change at Parwan as much as this news report suggests.  Ten months ago, we discovered that the US was running its own catch-and-release program out of Parwan, too.   That program bypassed Congress and the official NATO “reintegration” process for rehabilitating former Taliban insurgents, and was used by the US in order to play one terrorist group against another.  That is probably at least part of the reason the US dragged its feet in finally transferring control of Parwan to the Karzai government — not so much because of who might be released, but the ending of control over who gets released, and the benefits the US might derive from those choices.

That had to end sometime, though, especially with the US determined to end its combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year.  The only way to make that successful is to force the Taliban to transform into a legitimate political party, and for the Pashtuns to live in peaceful coexistence with the other tribes of Afghanistan.  Civil wars end either with reintegration or with dissolution, and no one wants a Pashtunistan established — especially not the Pakistanis, who would be next to lose a significant chunk of their sovereign territory.  That means talks, and that also means allowing the Taliban to open offices on neutral ground in order to negotiate.

If we are leaving in 2014, and it’s very clear we are, we only have a small window in which to influence the direction of the civil war we’re leaving behind.  Kerry is making the best steps he can within the paradigm of the Obama administration’s policies, but that doesn’t mean they have a high likelihood of success. It just means we don’t have many other cards to play at this point.

Update: On the other hand, Kerry had better improve his game from his recent visit to Baghdad.  The results of his visit with Nouri al-Maliki were almost facepalm fodder:

“The Americans are not using claws or teeth,” Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Mr. Maliki’s former national security adviser, said shortly before Mr. Kerry’s visit.

A headline Sunday in the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada referring to President Obama’s trip last week to the Middle East read, “Obama Visited the Region but Ignored Iraq.” The article noted that “Iraq was not even mentioned in Obama’s speeches to the region” and said that “all the protests and bombings in Iraq haven’t come to the attention of Obama.” …

American influence over the country, or the lack of it, was the subject of a joke between the two leaders before their meeting.

Appearing briefly before photographers, Kerry joked to Maliki that Clinton had told him that the Iraqi leader is “going to do everything I say.”

Maliki shot back through the translator: “We won’t do it!”

Smart power.