As Taliban leaders slip in and out of Kabul for long-anticipated negotiations, the Afghan government and its western advisers must take care not to make a messy political situation even more so.
A deal with the Taliban must not betray Afghans
Talk is cheap, but it's also dirty work. As Taliban leaders slip in and out of Kabul for long-anticipated negotiations, the Afghan government and its western advisers must take care not to make a messy political situation even more so.
On the one hand, negotiations offer an opportunity for a fresh start. Taliban leaders escorted to meetings by Nato forces have included elements of the Quetta shura, and at least one member of the Haqqani network. But the talks are also notable for who's absent. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed former leader of the Taliban government, is reportedly not on any guest list. While his omission is wise, given his alleged closeness to Pakistani intelligence, it should serve as a reminder of the Taliban's fractured alliance. Taliban motivations vary widely; striking deals with one leader won't mean others fall into line.
Pakistan, while not a party to the current discussions, can do more to close this gap – although it has shown little desire to do so. The United States can help Pakistan make the correct choices by more forcefully linking economic assistance to military benchmarks.
There are many theories on the timing of this latest round of detente between Kabul and the Taliban, but one goes that a ratcheted-up air assault on Taliban strongholds in Pakistan has left the mujahideen searching for a way out. This reasoning is not convincing. The Taliban's apparent surge of influence in northern provinces suggests Nato gains in the south are not uniform across the country.
Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the UN's al Qa'eda and Taliban monitoring team, concedes that a split in the Taliban's leadership would complicate reconciliation efforts, and could open the door to other worries. "The Taliban leaders' weakening position will make it tougher for them to carry through any agreement," he wrote in The New York Times, "and not just to stop the fighting and ensure observance of a national constitution, but to make a clear break with al Qa'eda."
Separating the Taliban from the fabric of Afghan politics should not be the focus of these talks. Members of today's Taliban are certain to help to govern the Afghanistan of tomorrow. But while a fully representative government may be wishful thinking, Kabul and its allies should bargain for the most equitable form possible.
We also hope these are not stall tactics employed by rogue elements. Evidence, however, suggests caution is in order. After nine years of war, all sides are eager for an exit. But negotiated peace must reflect the will of the Afghan people, not only the ambitions of political power brokers, or fighters on the other side of the Durand Line. Dirty work indeed.