Prisoner Exchanges Hoped to Revive Taliban Talks

The discussion about exchanging prisoners comes as foreign troops are set to leave Afghanistan.

Is the United States trying to rescue a struggling peace process in Afghanistan? The answer, according to The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogan, is yes. And just as previous attempts to reach out to senior Taliban officials began with a discussion over prisoner exchanges, Obama Administration officials are hoping that this issue will build the confidence that is sorely needed to open up a comprehensive dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

Rogan reports that talks between the Taliban and the United States about exchanging prisoners would be linked to a broader effort “to lay the groundwork for a potential reconciliation between the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.”

As part of the outreach effort, American officials have repeatedly asked the Pakistani government to release a captured Taliban leader. Meanwhile, semi-official talks are ongoing in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintains an office that officially never opened.

Those who have been following the war in Afghanistan can be forgiven for assuming that peace negotiations are a lost cause. Over the previous three years, Afghan and American officials have launched two separate peace tracks with Taliban representatives, both of which collapsed after only a few sessions.

The first attempt, in the spring and summer of 2011, fell apart after news of the talks leaked to the press. Infuriated that a confidentiality agreement had been breached, Taliban officials walked away from the table, recasting the talks as nothing more than exploratory discussions over prisoner exchanges.

The second attempt, last summer, fell victim to Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s unpredictable behavior. A short time after Taliban officials set up camp in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar for preliminary negotiations, Karzai pulled the plug, vocally complaining that the Taliban were using the office as an embassy.

Of all of the subjects that would need to be broached between the Americans and the Taliban, the mutual release of prisoners is seen as an issue that holds the best chance of finding some common ground. Such an agreement, the theory goes, would gradually produce the political space and reassurance that both parties need to press ahead on more substantive issues.

Yet the possibility of exchanging prisoners has proved elusive time and again, even when the United States had the most leverage. If the Taliban were unwilling to budge two and a half years ago when America’s presence in Afghanistan was at its peak — over 100,000 troops were deployed to the country — it is difficult to see why they would rethink their position just as NATO is preparing to draw down its engagement by the end of this year. With the United States and its allies heading for the exits, conventional wisdom suggests that the insurgency is far more likely to wait until the foreign soldiers leave than to compromise. Even Obama Administration officials appear to acknowledge that the latest overture to the Taliban is unlikely to yield many tangible results.

Will this latest outreach prove to be any different than the previous two? Is the Taliban genuinely interested in a peace settlement or do they simply view the process as a way to way to get their prisoners released from American custody?

Diplomats will be trying to sort out the answers to those questions, all the while knowing full well that America’s longest war will be ending in less than a year, whatever breakthroughs they may achieve in the meantime.