Washington is openly negotiating with a jihadist organization for the first time. If public talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban experience a measure of success, they could provide a template for bringing other jihadists forces around the world into the political mainstream. The key will be to disentangle nationalist jihadist forces from al Qaeda's transnational jihadist agenda.
After a yearlong lapse in negotiations, the White House announced Tuesday that American officials would hold direct talks with representatives of the Afghan Taliban on Thursday. The announcement coincided with the opening of a political bureau in the Qatari capital by the Taliban. These two developments came on the same day the International Security Assistance Force completed the handover of security responsibility to Afghan National Security Forces.
Previous discussions with the Taliban didn't lead anywhere because the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was unwilling or unable to accept some key demands of the Afghan jihadist movement. These included the release of high-profile prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the removal of Taliban leaders from international terrorist lists, and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. The Taliban have since moderated some of their stances and agreed to talks, but they have still refused to accept the Afghan constitution in its current form — a key U.S. demand.
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Since the suspension of talks last year, the Taliban have been enhancing their position on the battlefield and engaging in political maneuvering via talks in Paris with representatives of their archrivals, the former Northern Alliance. They have also spent time establishing their Qatar office, which is now officially known as "The Political Bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha." Most recently, the Doha-based officials visited Iran and held talks with leaders of the Islamic republic, which will also be getting a new government — one interested in bargaining with the United States to extract concessions on sanctions, the nuclear issue and Syria.
The Afghan government, whose president, Hamid Karzai, will leave in 2014, will likely be represented in these talks through the High Peace Council. Muhammad Naeem, spokesperson for the Taliban office in Qatar, was quoted as saying that the Taliban don't recognize the Afghan government and the government of President Hamid Karzai, and that they will only hold talks with the Americans, under the patronage of Qatar. But one of Washington's objectives will certainly be to get the Taliban involved in talks with the Kabul government.
Pakistan, the country that has the most influence within Afghanistan and with the Taliban, has a new government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It will play a huge role in shaping post-NATO Afghanistan since it will be in office until 2018 and because it is led by Sharif's right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League party, which has better connections to the Taliban and Saudi Arabia, another key global player with tremendous influence on the Taliban. Meanwhile, India, which will also be getting a new government next year ahead of the NATO drawdown, will play a key role as it seeks to leverage its influence with the Afghan state to protect its security interests along its western flank. New Delhi will offer military training, arms deals and investments to Kabul.
Given the number of players involved — including Russia — and the amount of difficult issues to address ( including the Taliban's demand to change the Afghan political system), not much should be expected in the short term from the talks. The Obama administration faces many domestic political constraints in terms of the concessions it can give to the Taliban; the American president said today that the road ahead with the Taliban is littered with hurdles. The Taliban, meanwhile, have been showcasing their insurgent capabilities on the battlefield and feel they can play hardball with the Americans as they seek structural changes to the current Afghan state. Iran and Pakistan — Afghanistan's principal neighbors — will try to secure their own interests in exchange for supporting a negotiated settlement.
Finally, there are the al Qaeda-led transnational jihadist forces that want to torpedo any such negotiations; they wish to see a NATO drawdown take place without a settlement. Such an outcome would not only allow them to neutralize the threats to their agenda in the cross-border Afghanistan-Pakistan geography, but also to enhance their fortunes. The United States and its Western allies are leaving behind a fragile Afghan state and a highly destabilized Pakistan, which is what the transnational jihadist forces would like to exploit.
This is why all eyes will be on the Haqqani faction — the part of the Taliban central leadership loyal to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Haqqanis are also nationalist jihadists, but they have complex relations with al Qaeda that will not be easy to interrupt. This would explain why U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the Taliban's pledge not to allow their country to be used for attacks against other nations was sufficient for now, and that an eventual disavowal of al Qaeda ties by the Taliban was only an "end goal of the process."
That Washington is willing to be patient with the Taliban on the al Qaeda issue shows just how invested the Obama administration is in the negotiations. There is also the matter of changes to the current Afghan constitution. These will be the most complex issues in the talks.