The Associated Press reported as an “exclusive” earlier this morning that the Taliban have offered to release an American held for almost four years in a swap for Taliban members at Guantanamo Bay. The offer comes as the US tries to salvage the peace talks after pushback from Kabul:
The Afghan Taliban say they are ready to hand over a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
A Taliban spokesman, Shaheen Suhail, says U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl “is as far as I know in good condition.” …
Shaheen says “first has to be the release of detainees,” and after that, the Taliban “want to build bridges of confidence.”
If they want to build “bridges of confidence,” perhaps they should stop burning them first. After a hopeful opening exchange with the Hamid Karzai government, the Taliban provoked Karzai by casting its Qatar office as an official embassy of Afghanistan. Karzai now refuses to negotiate with the Taliban:
Hopes dimmed for talks aimed at ending the Afghan war when an angry President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday suspended security negotiations with the U.S. and scuttled a peace delegation to the Taliban, sending American officials scrambling to preserve the possibility of dialogue with the militants.
What provoked the mercurial Karzai and infuriated many other Afghans was a move by the Taliban to cast their new office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as a rival embassy. The Taliban held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday in which they hoisted their flag and a banner with the name they used while in power more than a decade ago: “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” …
An American official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said he still expects to have the first public meeting with Taliban representatives in the next few days in Qatar but that no exact meeting date has been set.
Secretary of State John Kerry tried to woo Karzai back as Qatar conducted some damage control by demanding changes at the Taliban office. Karzai still isn’t budging, though:
“The secretary spoke with President Karzai last night and again this morning,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a daily briefing in Washington.
“The secretary reiterated the fact that we do not recognize the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. … He noted that the government of Qatar has taken steps today to ensure that the political office is in compliance with the conditions established by the government of Qatar for its operations, and noted also that we are pleased that the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement clarifying that the name of the office is the Political Office of the Afghan Taliban and not the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has had the sign with the incorrect name in front of the door taken down.”
She added the Taliban office “must not be treated as or represent itself as an embassy or other office representing the Afghan Taliban as an emirate government or sovereign.”
The publicly-made prisoner exchange offer, then, comes as extra motivation for the US to put pressure on Karzai. The Taliban want the peace talks in order to get the West out of the way, while Karzai wants … the West out of the way, too, for the most part. In fact, Karzai wants the West out of the negotiations altogether now:
Afghanistan’s president says he will not pursue peace talks with the Taliban unless the United States steps out of the negotiations and the militant group stops its violent attacks on the ground.
Hamid Karzai is upset over a U.S. and Taliban announcement the day before that they would begin preliminary peace talks in Qatar without the Afghan government.
According to a statement from Karzai’s office, he says that his High Peace Council would “neither attend nor participate in the talks” until the process is “completely” in the hands of Afghans.
That’s not going to work, though, because the US is a combatant in the war and holds prisoners that will have to get swapped eventually at the end of hostilities. Karzai’s demand is obstructionist in that sense, but also practical, as he likely fears that the US will offer more concessions than Karzai can withstand in order to achieve peace in our time, to use a phrase with specific historical overtones. The best way to prevent that is to push the US out of the talks, but that’s impossible. If nothing else, though, the demand sets a marker for Karzai that he’d be happy to bail out any time the US makes life impossible for Kabul.
In the end, there is little choice but to negotiate an end to the war. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban are an integral part of Afghanistan as leaders of the Pashtun plurality. The war in Afghanistan in the post-Soviet era has been both religious and tribal, with no possibility of ultimate victory for either side. We’re not negotiating an end to the civil war so much as an end to our part of it, by getting assurances that the Taliban won’t cooperate with terrorism outside of their borders again. The rest will be up to the Afghans.