NBC: US to hold direct talks with Afghan Taliban today in Qatar

Did the US release five Taliban commanders in order to sit down with them and negotiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan? Perhaps, perhaps not — but that’s what will happen anyway, according to NBC’s Taliban sources. Direct talks between the the US and the Taliban will take place today in Qatar, and it’s not clear whether Afghanistan’s government is included:

Members of the Afghan Taliban were due to hold direct talks with American officials in Qatar on Thursday, two senior militants told NBC News.

The delegation is led by Tayyab Agha, a close aide of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, one of the sources told NBC News from Qatar. He added that it also includes five former Taliban commanders freed from Guantanamo Bay in a controversial exchange for American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in May 2014.

“Finally we are going to sit with each other. The first round of our talks with U.S. officials is being held today on Thursday,” that senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by the telephone. “We aren’t hopeful it will resolve all the differences in one day, [but] it can provide us an opportunity to study each other’s mind and pave the way for further talks.”

Agence France-Presse heard the same thing from its Taliban sources. Their report suggests that new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani may have blessed the proceedings:

The election last year of President Ashraf Ghani, who pledged to make peace talks a priority, as well as supportive signals from Pakistan, which has influence over the Taliban, has boosted hopes for possible dialogue.

“Five former members of the supreme council of the Afghan Taliban, headed by Tayyab Agha, will hold talks with the US,” a senior Taliban cadre based in Pakistan told AFP.

A senior member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s governing council, confirmed the news, saying Karzai’s departure as president had helped clear the way.

“This time the Taliban will speak to Americans face to face in Qatar, this is what Karzai was afraid of, he did not want Americans to represent the Afghan government,” the commander told AFP.

Eventually, the resolution of the war in Afghanistan would have to come at the negotiating table. The Taliban are not al-Qaeda; they are primarily Pashtuns who live in large numbers in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is a civil war, and was long before we invaded in 2001, when we sided with the Northern Alliance of tribes opposed to the Pashtun’s brutal Islamist leadership. The Afghans have to find a way to live with their tribal differences or continue the tribal warfare for another several decades, preferably without us and without giving succor to al-Qaeda or ISIS.

Still, this raises plenty of questions about the Bergdahl trade. Was that a quid pro quo to hold direct talks rather than a trade for a POW? Did the Obama administration let the five men go specifically to have them stick around in Qatar as negotiators? If so, did the Ghani government agree to that? Ghani just met with Pakistan’s top military officer two days ago, one of the steps in a warming process between the two countries since Ghani took the top job. It’s possible that Ghani needed to give the Taliban a sign that he could get the US to work with him on peace, and that the trade was the key for that effort.

At the same time, though, the Taliban have continued attacking in Afghanistan in the months since the trade. Also, the official Taliban line this morning is that there are no talks between the Taliban and the US, and won’t be until we withdraw:

An Afghan Taliban spokesperson said Thursday that a report stating the leadership of the faction is willing to hold peace talks with US officials is fabricated.

Zabiullah Mujahid has said that reports of the faction pushing for peace talks are false.

Earlier, a Reuters report had quoted senior Pakistani army and diplomatic officials as saying that the Afghan Taliban have signalled through the Pakistani military that they are willing to open peace talks, which could be held later in the day.

The Reuters report had also quoted sources within the Afghan Taliban as saying that their negotiators would hold the first round of peace talks with US officials in Qatar later on Thursday, although no comment was immediately available from US or Qatari officials.

We’ll see. If the Taliban 5 release produces a lasting peace and an enduring pluralistic form of self-government in Afghanistan, it would be worth it. If it doesn’t, then it still leaves the headscratchingly lopsided deal as one of the big puzzles of the Obama administration’s track record on national security.