U.S. Set for Taliban Talks as Afghan Military Takes Lead

The U.S. and the Taliban, deadly foes through 12 years of war in Afghanistan, executed a bit of choreographed diplomacy that sets the stage for initial peace negotiations to begin within days.

Within 24 hours, the plan ran into a first obstacle, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his government wouldn’t take part until the peace process is fully led by Afghans.

The Taliban opened a political office in Doha, Qatar, yesterday as a venue for talks after more than a year of stalled efforts toward a dialogue. The U.S. announced plans to send a delegation for discussions, which it said would be followed by members of the Afghan High Peace Council, a group empowered by Karzai to represent his government. It’s “possible” that the talks will start tomorrow, Mohamad Naim, the Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, said by phone today.

The sensitivities that have bogged down efforts to hold substantial negotiations were underscored today, when Karzai said his government won’t participate. Earlier, Karzai said he was suspending discussions with the U.S. on an accord governing the long-term presence of American military trainers to protest what he called “contradictions” between U.S. acts and statements in pursuing peace with the Taliban.

President Barack Obama said today that the U.S. had “extensive conversations” with Karzai before the Taliban office was opened. At a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said he anticipated there would be friction.

Long Fight

Any effort to negotiate a peace “is going to be a difficult process,” Obama said. “They’ve been fighting for a very long time.”

It’s unclear whether the Taliban are seeking a deal with the Afghan government or are trying to run out the clock as the U.S.-led coalition winds down its role with the withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014.

“While my money is against the prospects of success, it’s worth exploring this” as long as the U.S. keeps its “expectations modest,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview yesterday.

The talks were announced as Afghan forces formally made the transition yesterday to assume responsibility for their country’s security. The agreement to begin talks is significant because it indicates that the Taliban perceive “the Afghan government is not likely to collapse after the international troop withdrawal,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

‘Historic Day’

In Kabul, Karzai was joined by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a ceremony for the transition that the Afghan leader said marked a “historic day.” Rasmussen said that while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s combat role will end next year, NATO “will still be there to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.”

The capabilities of the 350,000 Afghan troops and police are already being tested, as the security forces confront supply and transportation problems, corruption, regional rivalries and high personnel turnover.

They face Taliban forces that still control large areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, while security is tenuous, even in and near the capital. Yesterday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy carrying a prominent lawmaker, and four Americans were reported killed in a rocket attack at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.

Setting Conditions

To meet a U.S. condition for the talks, the Taliban released a statement in Qatar saying it opposes the use of Afghan soil for international terrorism operations and that it supports an Afghan peace process.

In Doha, Taliban spokesman Naim yesterday said “we can’t say” that fighting in Afghanistan will stop before a peace agreement is reached. The Taliban “considers it its religious and national duty to gain independence from occupation and, for that purpose, has utilized every legitimate” means and will continue to do so, he said.

The difficulty of getting both sides of the Afghan conflict together was reflected in a flap over the name of the Taliban’s Doha outpost. At yesterday’s opening, speakers addressed journalists in front of a banner that said the office was for the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

The state-run Qatar News Agency today put out a statement saying the facility is the “political office of the Taliban of Afghanistan,” citing an unidentified Qatari foreign ministry official.

‘Real Process’

“If this is just U.S.-Taliban negotiations, the process won’t get very far,” said Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington. When “the Karzai government is actually wrangling over political issues with the insurgents, then we will start to have a real process.”

Australia, an ally of the U.S. that has about 1,650 personnel deployed in Afghanistan, today said the Taliban won’t halt attacks in the nation.

“Despite transition and the increasing capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghanistan will remain challenging, particularly in areas removed from population centers,” Defense Minister Stephen Smith told parliament in Canberra. “The Taliban will continue to target” its opponents “through propaganda-motivated attacks including high-profile suicide bomb attacks.”

Puppet Regime

The U.S. has called publicly for reconciliation talks with the Taliban since early 2010 and pursued covert contacts with insurgents. The outreach was set back by numerous events, including the assassination of the Afghan government’s chief peace envoy and high-profile attacks on U.S. troops and the American embassy in Afghanistan.

Until now, the Taliban had rejected talks with Karzai’s government, characterizing it as a “puppet” regime.

The U.S. delegation will be led by James Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. involvement is intended to help facilitate an accord between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Since the October 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban regime that was harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon reports that more than 2,100 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has spent $468.5 billion on the Afghan war, according to figures from the Defense Department Comptroller.

‘End Goal’

Three U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the process said the U.S. doesn’t expect any immediate major breakthroughs, and that there’s no guarantee of a successful outcome from the talks.

The U.S. thinks that the Taliban negotiators, who call themselves the Taliban Political Commission, are authorized by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the top Taliban leader who’s based in Pakistan, according to one of the U.S. officials.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Taliban statement satisfied U.S. conditions to start talks and that further concessions -- such as disavowing al-Qaeda and accepting women’s rights -- are part of the “end goal.” The opening of the political office “is just a beginning of the process,” she said, speaking to reporters yesterday.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that he’s “very concerned that the Obama administration has agreed to direct talks with the Taliban despite little indication that the Taliban is serious about cutting its ties to al-Qaeda, renouncing terrorism, or respecting the Afghan government and constitution.”

Real Opening

Representative Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there “might be a real opening for Afghanistan to achieve a political solution and end the country’s almost 30-year armed conflict” if the Taliban demonstrate support for a peace process.

Brian Katulis, a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group, said in an interview that the process “will be fraught with great difficulties.” Still, “it is worth trying” since “there is no simple military solution,” he said.

Prisoner exchanges, particularly the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whom the U.S. suspects has been held since 2009 by the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban, are among the topics to be discussed, one of the U.S. officials said. The Taliban are seeking the release of detainees from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview that the timing for the talks is good “because the military part of the Afghan government is in a stronger position, and the Taliban is in a weaker position.”

Security Responsibility

Obama in January announced the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan-led operations ahead of a complete withdrawal of the 66,000 American combat troops now serving in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The size of the U.S. presence after the end of combat operations in 2014 hasn’t been set.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who sits on the panel, called it a mistake to engage directly with the Taliban before the U.S. establishes the level of American troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

“The only way to talk to the Taliban is when you have superiority on the battlefield, and they’re convinced they can never take Afghanistan over through military engagement,” Graham said.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he would be “very pessimistic about any concrete results” from talking with the Taliban “but I certainly wouldn’t discourage it.”

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