U.S., Afghanistan to relaunch peace talks with Taliban for some reason

They’ve been trying to get the Taliban to the table, via Qatar, for at least three years. The question all along was simple: What’s our leverage? Why would jihadis who’ve been fighting to retake the country for more than a decade agree to make concessions now when they’re 18 months away from an American drawdown? In particular, why would they agree to peace talks at a moment when the U.S. is formally handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan army, which is going about as well as you’d expect?

Unless this is purely a face-saving gesture by the U.S., I don’t know.

The new dialogue, with a Taliban delegation that U.S. officials said has been authorized by Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, will begin Thursday in Doha, the Qatari capital. The United States will be represented by senior State Department and White House officials…

“Later today in Doha,” a senior official said, “the Taliban will release a statement saying two things: they will oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries . . . and they will support the Afghan peace process.”…

Officials said they expected that initial conversations would be limited to outlining the agendas on both sides, which remain far apart. For the United States, the ultimate goal is for the Taliban to break all ties with al-Qaeda, end violence in Afghanistan, recognize the Afghan constitution—including rights for minorities and women—and participate in the democratic process there.

The Taliban have demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan—including a residual force the United States and NATO plan to leave there after the 2014 combat withdrawal—and the release of all Taliban detainees. Those detainees include about 60 prisoners the United States still holds in Afghanistan, and five militants being held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States has turned the bulk of its battlefield prisoners in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government.

Mullah Omar authorized the talks? The same Mullah Omar whom even the Taliban rank-and-file hasn’t heard from in years and years? Note too that the preconditions for meeting don’t require the Taliban to expel Al Qaeda from the territory they hold. All they need to do is oppose AQ using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks on foreign countries.

Kerry’s been working on putting this together behind the scenes for months. The last time talks were held, in 2012, the two sides got close to a “confidence-building” prisoner exchange between a handful of Taliban who are being held at Gitmo and American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who’s been held by the Taliban for four years. Per Josh Rogin, that’s likely how these negotiations will begin too. (“U.S. officials said today the Bergdahl trade was back on the table.”) One very curious element to all this: It was just three weeks ago that the U.S. killed the Taliban’s number two in Pakistan, Wali ur-Rehman. Rehman had a reputation for being more open to diplomacy than most Taliban leaders, which makes it exceedingly strange that the U.S. would take a shot at him while they were trying to make talks happen. Even stranger is the fact that the Pakistani Taliban responded to his death by withdrawing their offer for negotiations — and yet here they are, less than a month later, announcing that they’re headed to the table. Something strange is happening behind the scenes.

The White House can’t possibly believe that the Taliban wlll honor a peace deal once American troops are gone. The idea here, I take it, is to create some sort of fig leaf so that next year’s drawdown looks kinda sorta like it’s being done on “victorious” terms. The Taliban’s formally agreed to play nice and not let Al Qaeda run wild anymore, ergo we “win” and can leave with honor. As for why the Taliban would agree to that, maybe they’ve finally grasped that this really is all about giving the U.S. a fig leaf and they’ve decided that it’s in their interest to do that. If things quiet down for the next 18 months, they can regroup for the big post-withdrawal push to retake Kabul while not having to worry about other commanders meeting Rehman’s fate in the meantime. This is, in a way, the flip side of the coin to the already failed “peace talks” that were supposed to calm things down in Syria. Those talks are dead on arrival because Assad’s winning on the ground now and has zero incentive to make concessions. The Taliban’s not “winning” on the ground in Afghanistan, but they will be eventually and they already know that their chief obstacle to that will be removed soon enough. The White House has an odd knack for holding negotiations in which its leverage is minimal. Makes you optimistic about the fate of the neverending Iran nuclear talks.