Very rarely do we receive good news from Afghanistan. Insurgent ambushes and bomb attacks continue to claim the lives of innocent Afghan civilians every day. But as peace talks between the Taliban and the United States are reportedly progressing, the prospect for a negotiated end to the ten-year old war may finally be in the making.
The strongest political irritant to NATO operations in Afghanistan has been the Taliban’s consistent rebuffing of peace overtures regardless of where those requests came from. President Barack Obama’s announcement that American soldiers would be winding down their campaign by 2014 likely provided the Taliban leaders with an incentive to fight for another three years before aiming directly at Hamid Karzai’s civilian government.
Yet with the Taliban facing a number of drawbacks over the past eighteen months — thousands of operatives killed or captured, a movement fracturing on the Pakistani side of the border and an insurgent leadership that is at times disconnected from its field units — the movement’s top members may be reconsidering that assumption.
As in any negotiation process, the exact details of the talks with the Taliban are being kept under the wraps. The New York Times has managed to publish some of the major items being debated between the two sides nevertheless. The hope is that movement on these issues will create trust on both sides to discuss an eventual peace agreement.
One proposal under review is a traditional quid pro quo that will surely be controversial for members in the United States Congress — the release of five senior Taliban prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay interrogation facility in Cuba. In return for that sacrifice, the Taliban would officially open a political office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, setting up shop in order to further explore the diplomatic option in the coming months.
The White House has already come out to denounce this arrangement, describing reports of Guantánamo transfers as “not accurate.”
For a president who is just starting to get his reelection campaign in synch, releasing five Taliban officials who had close links with Al Qaeda operatives would be a difficult thing to sell to the electorate.
Republican presidential candidate and presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, who has been at his most passionate when bashing Obama’s foreign policy record, would exploit this move as an opportunity to further put his opponent on the defensive. Lawmakers who are unsympathetic to any Taliban overtures could view the prisoner release as a dangerous breach of American national security, if not an unnecessary capitulation before negotiations are even conducted in a serious manner.
The Obama Administration, then, has a problem on its hands. It clearly wants to end the war and bring American soldiers home but doing so will entail confidence building measures that may weaken its image during a hostile election season. Will the president attempt to secure his reelection, or travel down the long and unpredictable road of negotiating with an enemy that, if successful, could end America’s longest war in modern history? As a war-time president who has invested a considerable amount of time on looking for ways to end the war, one can only hopes he chooses the latter.