US to Open Peace Talks With the Taliban

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". A potentially historic day for Afghanistan and the United States today. The US and the Taliban have agreed to open direct talks. Representatives of the sides will meet in Doha in Qatar on Thursday. One big concession from the Taliban already, they said they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries. Also today, the US and international forces handed security responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan over to the government of Hamid Karzai. Stephen Biddle was part of the Afghanistan Strategic Assessment Team put together by General Stanley McChrystal in 2009. He is now a professor of political science at George Washington University. And, Stephen Biddle, there are so many questions here, but let's start with what the goal is for the United States or at least the way they see it. What is the point of talking to the Taliban right now?

Stephen Biddle: If there's going to be an acceptable outcome to this conflict it's going to have to be through negotiation. It's been a long, long time since anybody had any preconceptions that we were somehow or another going to be able to destroy the Taliban militarily. So the only way out other than defeat and failure is through some kind of negotiation process. Those negotiations have been deadlocked for a long, long time, so this is a promising note of perhaps having a deadlocked series of talks we're gonna find.

Werman: So will some people be saying, "Well, talking to the Taliban is one way of looking at this as defeat."?

Biddle: Well, this is not going to be a Taliban surrender negotiation. It's going to be a compromise settlement if it happens in which both sides have to make concessions. The concessions from our side are going to be things that we would rather not give up and that we didn't think we were going to have to give up back in say 2001, 2002.

Werman: Such as what? What can you imagine that being?

Biddle: Well, one of them being the Taliban are almost certainly going to be legalized as a political actor in Afghanistan and they will very probably have some sort of extra-democratic set-aside of offices or parliamentary seats or government positions of some kind. Those are things that we denied them back in 2001 to 2002. They are almost certainly going to happen if these talks are going to go anywhere?

Werman: So while these talks go on, what will happen to the war aside from the US scheduled for troop withdrawal sticking to the 2014 deadline? Is there any suggestion of a ceasefire on the horizon?

Biddle: Not soon. Obviously that will be part of the talks if they go forward. I think both sides have a variety of things that they want before they're going to be willing to observe a ceasefire and my guess is ceasefires, if they happen, will probably start small-scale and locally before they spread across the country as a whole. So I think that's downstream at the moment, potentially quite a bit downstream, but eventually if the talks move it would have to happen.

Werman: And what happens with al-Qaeda? I mean the US has insisted, haven't they, on Taliban cutting all ties to al-Qaeda?

Biddle: Well, that's right and part of the issue here is figuring out exactly what that means. In the statement the Taliban made, said that they were opposed to the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries. That presumably means they would be opposed to the use of Afghan soil by al-Qaeda to attack New York City. But exactly what the details and the limits and the conditions and the particulars are is going to be established by negotiation.

Werman: I think about the Paris peace talks and, of course, that ended the Vietnam war in 1973. They were totally thrown out by the Communists two years later after the US was long gone and then they quickly conquered South Vietnam. Isn't there a similar potential narrative with Afghanistan? Lots of talking and then the Taliban restarting the war down the road when everyone is gone?

Biddle: I don't think the Taliban are going to be militarily strong enough to blow aside the Afghan government military in the aftermath of these talks. I think the concern for sustainability in these negotiations is if we legalize the Taliban as a political actor and we give them some foothold in the legal Afghan government, what happens if the manifest corruption of the current Afghan government continues and the Taliban eventually become more popular than an increasingly-corrupt non-Taliban government and win at the ballot box — power and influence that they would never have been able to get at the muzzle of a gun, either before we withdrew or afterwards? That's the real issue with sustainability in the talks, that the solutions that respects US war aims might collapse politically because of the foothold we'll have to give the Taliban and the Afghan government if we allow the non-Taliban government to continue to become increasingly predatory and increasingly corrupt.

Werman: Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a former adviser on Afghanistan.