EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article was written, the Afghan government has announced that it will suspend security negotiations with the United States because of "inconsistent US statement and action" in the Taliban peace process.
BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Afghan and international officials were all smiles on Tuesday for the formal handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces.
“We have worked hard, and fought hard, to make this possible. And we can be proud of what we have achieved together,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the National Defense University on the outskirts of Kabul.
But the ceremony was almost overshadowed by another announcement: The Taliban have agreed to resume peace talks with the United States in Qatar.
“The Islamic Emirate has deemed it essential to open the political office in the Islamic country of Qatar for the attainment of the following objectives,” said Taliban spokesman Mullah Naim, speaking in Doha.
Naim outlined the Taliban’s goals, including “a political and peaceful solution which includes the end of the occupation of Afghanistan and the establishment of an independent Islamic system and true security.”
The fact that the Taliban will once again be meeting face to face with American negotiators is a positive sign, say experts. But few think this represents a major shift in policy on either the Taliban or the US side.
A suspected rocket attack on Afghanistan's Bagram airbase killed four US service members on the same day the peace talks were announced.
The United States has been engaged in a frequently frustrating dance with the Taliban for some time. In January 2012, the Taliban walked out of peace talks, claiming that Washington was negotiating in bad faith.
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“These statements represent an important first step toward reconciliation, a process that after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy,” an unnamed senior Obama administration official told reporters in a conference call, according to National Public Radio.
Reuters quoted another US official as saying the first meet would be on Thursday.
The timing of the announcement may have been accidental, or it may be part of a push to give the Afghans at least the appearance of a larger role in the peace process.
Coming as it did on the big transition day, said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a writer and researcher who has studied the Taliban for many years, “gives the optic that now we have an Afghan-controlled process across the board.”
Karzai rushed to put his own inimitable stamp on the development.
“Afghanistan’s High Peace Council will travel to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the Taliban,” Karzai said, referring to the body he tapped for peace talks in 2010. “We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon.”
But Kabul has had to shoulder its way into the talks. The Taliban in the past have expressed an unwillingness to deal with the ”puppet” Afghan government.
While the High Peace Council may be given a seat at the table, it is the United States who will be doing the bulk of the negotiating, should the talks actually begin.
“The Taliban's statement today fell short of the unequivocal renunciation of Al Qaeda and terrorism that America has demanded for so long,” Strick said. “The significant change is that the groundwork has been done for official meetings to resume between Americans and the Taliban delegation.”
But many question to what extent the Afghans really are in control.
Tuesday’s ceremony marked the official transfer of the 403 districts in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces to Afghan responsibility. But as international forces increasingly assume a support role, rather than actively conducting combat operations, many question the readiness of the Afghan security forces to take on that task.
The Afghan National Security Forces now number 352,000, counting army, police and air force.
But attrition rates are unacceptably high, and battle losses are also quite heavy.
General Joseph Dunford, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the ANSF are losing 100 to 120 soldiers and police officers per week.
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According to Reuters, more Afghan troops have died in one year than NATO has lost across the entire war.
Many more simply quit — at a rate of about 5,000 per month, or one-third of the entire army every year.
There has been a recent upsurge in violence throughout Afghanistan.
In fact, even as the transition ceremony took place in Kabul Tuesday, a large bomb killed three civilians, but left the intended target, lawmaker Mohammad Mohaqeq, unscathed.
Just last week there was an attack on the Kabul Airport, with seven attackers holding off the Afghan forces for four hours. All seven attackers died, while the Afghan forces suffered no losses.
Some point to this and other recent attacks, in which the Afghan forces acquitted themselves relatively well, as a sign that they are ready.
But Ben Anderson, a writer and documentary filmmaker who has been studying the ANSF for six years, tells a different tale.
In his three-part documentary for Vice, “This is What Winning Looks Like," he shows soldiers so strung out on heroin they cannot even speak; police so corrupt and brutal that the population longs for the order of the Taliban days; and military men who regularly exploit young boys for sex.
These men are not going to be able to take on the Taliban without international help, Anderson insists. The so-called “transition” is just smoke and mirrors designed to give the illusion of progress.
“It's clear that we're not leaving because we've achieved our goals, we're leaving because we have given up on them,” he told GlobalPost. “The only goals we are committed to now are getting out as quickly as possible, with as few casualties as possible, while selling the war as some kind of success to the audiences back at home.”
This, of course, is not the message that International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) wants to convey.
“The Afghan National Army is the most respected national institution in the country. The Afghan National Police also rank highly,” according to ISAF’s official fact sheet on the ANSF.
Today, it is all congratulations and optimism. But look out for tomorrow.