Oddly enough, this might not be directly related to the Koran-burnings or last weekend’s rampage against Afghan civilians. The sticking point appears, rather, to be a prisoner exchange: The Taliban wants one but the White House, which needs congressional approval and is unlikely to get it in an election year, probably can’t deliver. And since the Taliban is uninterested in sharing power with Karzai or any other western-oriented corruptocrat, there’s really nothing else to talk about. The recent drama is relevant only insofar as it further encourages the waiting game the Taliban’s been playing for nearly 11 years. The more chaotic U.S./Afghan relations become, the greater the likelihood of a speedy withdrawal, the less incentive the jihadis have to make any kind of deal.
Tom Joscelyn reminds me, in fact, that when Hillary first mentioned the idea of peace talks publicly, it was all about getting the Taliban to renounce Al Qaeda, lay down their weapons, and join the Afghan government. They won’t do that, though, so instead the talks have drifted towards a prisoner swap, presumably as a sort of icebreaker and show of trust so that we can get them talking about our real goals. And so the peace talks end up as a metaphor for the whole war. Not only does the public have no real sense of what’s going on, the objective seems to keep changing.
American officials said in recent weeks that there had been no talks of any substance since January, when Ambassador Marc Grossman, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his team last visited the region. Even the meetings held then did little to move the process beyond the “talks about talks” stage, and the Afghan government had not yet begun to play any significant role in the effort, despite statements from President Karzai to the contrary, the officials said…
“Acknowledging their involvement in Qatar talks was a significant move for the Taliban. They expected that the U.S. would move quickly with confidence building measures,” said Michael Semple, a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “The transfer of Taliban leaders to Qatar was top on the list. The Taliban announcement of suspending engagement in Qatar is a response to their frustration at the US’s slowness to deliver.” Mr. Semple said a series of crises to beset the Americans in the Afghanistan conflict since the start of the year had added another layer of uncertainty to the talks, emboldening Taliban hardliners to press back against the peace effort. “The Taliban also believe that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in disarray and their hardliners want to take advantage of that by launching a new fighting season.”
Newsweek has more, including this dagger of a quote from a Taliban commander: “The problem with the talks is that the U.S. is talking from the position of a winner, but we are in the position of victors, so the U.S. should meet our demands.”
Despite all the problems, however, some senior Taliban leaders are advising the Quetta Shura that the negotiations should continue. There’s no better way for the insurgency to improve its diplomatic, political, and military position, they say. “The leadership of the Taliban must realize that the window of peace talks must remain open,” says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban political operative. “The biggest problem we had when we were in power was that we discounted the U.S. and the world community. That should not happen again.” nevertheless, he warns, “I am afraid that some of our military heavyweights may bulldoze their way to stop the talks.”
In any case, the negotiations may very well be sunk by the Taliban’s hard-line insistence on returning an Islamic regime to power in Kabul. “No one among the Taliban would argue against ending the war,” says the senior Taliban commander. “But ending the war must be based on our important principles.” That attitude doesn’t raise much hope for future talks.
Note that bit about how the Taliban sees its pre-9/11 isolation as a mistake. The one thing we have that they may want if/when they take back power from Karzai’s government is relations with the west. State legitimacy plus some measure of trade would help them consolidate power ahead of the next internecine tribal conflict. Hard to believe Obama or Romney or anyone else would have the political capital to grant them that, though. If it happened, it would mean that 9/11 and the long war afterward not only failed to permanently dislodge the Taliban from power but actually earned them a degree of international acceptance that they didn’t have before. Americans would choke on that, especially once the new government resumed its Islamist business of blowing up other cultures’ religious icons and shooting women in stadiums.
But like the man said, they’re the ones with the leverage here:
Danger Room is keeping score on who’s for and against pulling out: “Backing a quicker withdrawal: the White House; NATO; two out of three major Republican presidential candidates; Afghan President Hamid Karzai; and (um) the Taliban. Against a quicker withdrawal: the U.S. military and a handful of GOP legislators.” Actually, Karzai isn’t quite endorsing a faster withdrawal from the country but rather having U.S. troops pull back to their bases next year so that the Afghan military can take over security, a la Iraq. That’s his way of pandering to anti-American sentiment inside the country without quite calling on us to leave, which, as he knows, would be an epic clusterfark once Afghan troops struggled to keep the peace. Even so, given how staggeringly war weary Americans are, I’m amazed that he has the balls to float pullback/withdrawal ideas publicly lest the White House turn around and take him up on it, sealing his fate. He knows, I guess, that American pride insists on some sort of orderly exit. I wonder if he’s already picked out a country to which he’ll flee once we’re gone.