The media is abuzz with yet another major story that the Afghan government is holding talks with the Taliban. But the devil is in the details.
The New York Times, among others, gave good play to a press conference by Mohammad Massoom Stanekzai, the secretary of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, in which the Afghan official boldly stated that “We’re in touch, we talk all the time, we’ve done a lot.”
This was hailed as the highest-level confirmation to date that substantive talks with the Taliban were underway, a fact that cannot fail to gladden the war-weary hearts of Afghans and internationals everywhere.
Or can it?
It would be more surprising, and certainly more newsworthy, had Stanekzai said that there were no talks underway. The High Peace Council is a body that was set up last year expressly to facilitate talks with the Taliban. In order to earn its bread and butter it must at least give the impression that progress is being made.
But, as almost every Afghan expert worth his or her salt has tried to explain, “talks” is a pretty abstract concept.
“We should not confuse talks with negotiations,” writes Thomas Ruttig, Senior Researcher of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Negotiations involve some real give and take, something that has not been a great factor in the current discussions about possible reconciliation.
The Taliban, as far as anyone knows for certain, are still insisting that no genuine peace talks can take place until the foreign forces are out of Afghanistan. That prospect appears increasingly less likely. Discussions are underway between the United States and the Afghan government about the need for not-quite-permanent bases on Afghan soil.
The Afghan president often expresses his willingness to embrace his “disgruntled brothers” — his pet name for the insurgents who are attacking his troops as well as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But he can do little without the support of his foreign backers.
As Ruttig says in his informative analysis on the talks, “It takes two to talk.” But actually, in this case it takes three: the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the U.S.
On the other hand, the old guard Taliban openly state that they do not consider the government of Hamid Karzai to be a real party to the conflict.
“We have no problem with Karzai and his government,” said Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, in an earlier interview. “But who is he to negotiate?”
Zaeef was the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan until 2001, when Pakistani authorities handed him over to U.S. forces. Zaeef spent nearly four and a half years in Guantanamo, but was released without charge in 2005.
He insists that he does not officially represent the current Taliban leadership, but few doubt that he has close contacts with the Quetta Shura, the body under Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
“We need to talk to the United States,” continues Zaeef. “They are the real enemy.”
So unless U.S. negotiators are present at the table, the talks may remain on a purely speculative level.
The Obama administration, for its part, has softened a bit on its original demands that the Taliban lay down their arms, break with Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. In a speech to the Asia Society in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called these terms “necessary outcomes” of negotiations rather than absolute preconditions.
But no one has demonstrated with any degree of credibility that the Taliban are are willing to talk.
And even if they were, the issue of negotiations with the Taliban is a political minefield for any U.S. administration, particularly with a presidential election looming next year.
While everyone from General David Petraeus on down has said that a purely military solution to the conflict is impossible, a retreat without at least the semblance of victory is not going to contribute political capital to any candidate’s war chest, least of all President Barack Obama’s.
Karzai is in a similarly dicey position. Security is deteriorating steadily throughout the country, despite loud claims that Taliban momentum has been reversed. So the public is somewhat cool to the idea of cozying up to the insurgents.
Some members of the Meshrano Jirga, the Upper House of the Afghan Parliament, have even called for the High Peace Council to be dissolved, accusing them of “collaboration” with the Taliban.
"The Afghan government, in particular the Peace Council, supports suicide bombers,” said Senator Belqis Roshan, referring to the High Peace Council’s willingness to talk to those who have sponsored attacks such as the deadly February hit on a Jalalabad bank that left 40 dead.
Other senators were equally adamant, saying that the government should not abase itself before terrorists, “humbly inviting the Taliban for peace talks and offering them presents.”
The High Peace Council itself has come in for a great deal of criticism; its makeup is strongly reminiscent of the anti-Soviet jihad, leading observers to doubt that it could gain much traction with the Taliban.
“(There is) a troubling disconnect between the High Peace Council and Afghan civil society representatives, who strongly criticize the Council’s inclusion of former militia leaders among its members, the lack of transparency in its activities, and the lack of clarity in its objectives,” writes Patricia Grossman, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think-tank funded by Congress, in a recent report www.usip.org/publications/afghan-high-peace-council-fails-reflect-afghan... “For a peace process to have broad, popular support, the Afghan government and the international community must make greater efforts to engage local leaders in a dialogue and account for the interests of communities and interest groups that are not represented in the High Peace Council.”
One of those groups is women: there are only eight females included in the 70-member Peace Council. Women’s rights groups have been outspoken about the danger of allowing the fundamentalist group anywhere near political power.
But, as one U.S. diplomat put it in an earlier interview, “We will never go to the wall for women. All the talk about support for Afghan women is to appease the domestic lobby.”
So for now, “talks about talks” should perhaps remain more on the level of whispers.