Hope for Afghan Peace Talks After Taliban Walk Out

“Deep breaths, and not hyperventilation, are required here,” an American official said.

An American Marine in Afghanistan, February 21
An American Marine in Afghanistan, February 21 (USMC)

Negotiations between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban were seen by many as too good to be true. Now that the talks have officially stalled, the scramble is to explain why and to label this new roadblock as either a tactical pause or an abject failure.

Subsumed by the stalling are the small stepping stones to progress which the difficult negotiations have produced and the fact that “still, the door is very deliberately ajar,” as former United Nations official Michael Sempel put it.

Plans remain in place for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar — a move that is seen as a significant confidence building measure.

Negotiations to define the conditions under which the Pentagon would release five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay to Qatari custody are still moving forward, although this would be a controversial transfer if it does go through.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The Washington Post that the United States were still willing to “work with all Afghans who are committed to an inclusive reconciliation process” despite Taliban expressions of frustration.

Of particular concern is the belief that hardliners within the Taliban leadership will be able to derail negotiations permanently, overriding moderate elements that have put effort into the hope of a negotiated peace.

American officials, as reported by the Reuters news agency, believe that the suspension of talks was a tactical move, the result of internal Taliban dynamics rather than a definitive end of negotiations.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group, on the other hand, contest that “American efforts to negotiate with the Taliban to date have failed and risk further destabilizing the country and the region.” The group recommends that the UN step in and appoint a team of negotiators.

The ICG cites the recent downturn in Afghan-American relations — the Quran burning accident and Sergeant Robert Bales’ rampage in Kandahar — as pointing to a shift in Afghan perceptions of the American role in the country.

However, in their statement suspending negotiations the Taliban did not mention either incident. The fact that the Taliban did not seize upon the recent incidents and exploited them to stoke the flames of Afghan discontent with the American military presence led some American officials to express relief. The Taliban statement also, significantly, did not forswear future negotiations.

Only time will tell if the Taliban plan on returning to the table but the Americans are likely to be waiting. A negotiated peace remains NATO’s best hope for a dignified exit from Afghanistan. Despite the ICG’s claims, a United Nations negotiating team is unlikely to be more successful than an American one as the Taliban relationship with the international community has hardly been amiable.

The Afghan government will be waiting at the table too, though the Taliban has not hinted that it is open to negotiating with them. The Karzai Administration has demanded a place in the negotiations but has been generally left out of efforts to date.

With Karzai’s term expiring in 2014, a political vacuum looms. Kabul’s best hope is to pull the Taliban out of militancy and into the role of opposition if possible.

The recent stall is unlikely to be permanent; the potential benefits of moving forward with negotiations are simply too lucrative for either the Taliban or the Americans to declare the effort a failure and walk away.

“Deep breaths, and not hyperventilation, are required here,” an American official said.