How to Talk to the Taliban

Hopes could hardly be lower for the talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives that are scheduled to begin this week in Doha. A day after announcing they would enter negotiations, the Taliban killed four coalition soldiers in a rocket attack outside Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, worried that the U.S.-sponsored talks will legitimize his enemies, abruptly cut off discussion over a long-term role for U.S. forces there.

The only ones more interested in jaw-jaw than war-war seem to be the weary Americans, with Secretary of State John Kerry scrambling to reassure Karzai and keep the talks on the calendar. He is correct that these negotiations present an opportunity -- however small and fragile -- to put Afghanistan on a path to ending its endless war. To succeed, the U.S. must be clearer and more realistic about its goals, and about what it’s prepared to do to achieve them.

It’s pointless to judge the Taliban’s sincerity by attacks such as this week’s: They are still waging a war, and seeking to keep as much pressure on Washington as coalition forces are inflicting on them. As for the scene that raised a flag for Karzai -- literally, as Taliban envoys flew the banner of their former Islamic Emirate over their “office” in Doha -- the image can also be viewed in a positive light. The insurgents clearly crave international legitimacy, hoping to use the office to host diplomats and delegations.

That desire gives Washington useful leverage. Thus far the international community has held out the promise of rehabilitating the Taliban only under certain conditions: The insurgents must put down their arms, disown al-Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution and join the existing political process. These are the right goals, though achieving them will take time.

In the meantime, the administration of President Barack Obama should use the talks to test the Taliban’s willingness to change. Instead of vague discussions about reconciliation and local cease-fires, the Taliban should be asked to commit to specific actions -- a pledge to end all attacks on schools, hospitals and humanitarian organizations, say, or a cutoff of ties to international jihadi groups -- that can be clearly evaluated and verified.

This involves a broader change in mindset about the purpose of these negotiations. The U.S. is not going to bring about a grand bargain among Afghanistan’s many warring factions through its 65,000 troops -- most of whom will have returned home a year from now -- or through a few months of jawboning in the Persian Gulf, or even through the deeply unpopular Karzai, who must step down next spring.

What Washington can do is use its leverage to keep nudging Taliban leaders in the right direction, forcing them to prove their bona fides, challenging them to live up to their own claims about their concern for the Afghan people. The U.S., for its part, can do some things to help the Taliban leadership bolster its credibility among its rank-and-file, such as releasing some Taliban detainees in a prisoner exchange.

No one expects this process will be easy. Some in the Taliban still believe that they can achieve a military victory once the Americans leave; they may seek to drag out the negotiations and lull their opponents into complacency. At the same time, the senior Taliban leadership remembers how hard their fight against non-Pashtun factions in the north of the country was before the Sept. 11 attacks; those groups are now even better armed, and unlikely to accept Taliban dominance in Kabul.

Intriguingly, northern representatives who have met quietly with Taliban figures over the past year in Europe and elsewhere have found the insurgents open to negotiating a new constitutional framework that balances the rights of various ethnic and regional groups. This is the kind of “Afghan-led process” that Afghanistan needs.

The U.S. must understand both its power and its limits in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban’s rhetoric and Karzai’s tantrums, any Afghan government will need American military and economic support for years to come. At best, though, the U.S. can use that influence to make sure that all elements of Afghan society have a say in determining what that government will look like. It’s time to talk in Doha -- if only so the real conversation can finally begin.

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