x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Modest goals as Taliban talks mark a change

There are plenty of problems inherent in negotiating with the Afghan Taliban. But under all the circumstances, this may be the only way forward.

The weekend meeting between US and Taliban negotiators, in Qatar, was not the beginning of the end of fighting in Afghanistan. Nor was this the start of "peace talks". In fact, it was merely a discussion about the release of some Taliban prisoners at the US base at Guantanamo, and of a US sergeant captured by the Taliban in 2009.

But it's the start of an important process. Afghanistan is a country unlike any other - for most of its history it has been not so much a state as a loose agglomeration of regional, sectarian and kinship groups, coexisting in perpetual and often-broken armed truce.

After a decade of bloody, costly, inconclusive western combat presence, reversion to that sort of arrangement, with even a little window for foreign aid and modern ideas and without the pre-2001 style of exported Islamist terrorism, would be acceptable.

To be sure, "talking to the Taliban" has its challenges. Just last week Maj Gen John Toolan, the top Allied commander in Afghanistan, was saying that "infighting" (including "some killings") had revealed fractures in the Taliban command structure. In a context where anyone with a pickup truck, a rifle and a bit of explosive can claim to be a Taliban member, to whom exactly should anyone talk?

And who sits at the other end of the table? As the US opened the Qatar meeting, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan and Pakistan would shortly open their own talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. That too will be a start, but the complications inherent in parallel talks are obvious - to say nothing of the fact that Islamabad and Kabul have different policy goals.

In any case, the western presence in Afghanistan will end soon; indeed France has just accelerated its pullout after four soldiers were killed by a man in an Afghan army uniform. The decision, made as French President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks re-election, is regrettably reactive, for it can only spur more attacks. But western voters' patience with the war is plainly at an end.

The intractable problem is the shape of Afghan governance after western "foreign fighters" leave. It may well be that nobody can really unite the Afghan people: the Taliban is divided, President Hamid Karzai is little more than mayor of Kabul, and the ancient sub-national institutions - and rivalries - seem as permanent as the mountains and valleys.

Talking to the Taliban is no panacea and entails several potential problems, but it now seems to be the only reasonable approach.