News that the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Qatar is being greeted as a breakthrough in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. It is supposedly a sign the Taliban are genuinely committed to peace talks. Perhaps so, but count me as skeptical.
It is worth recalling the North Vietnamese government was hardly averse to negotiating even while its troops and Viet Cong proxies were battling U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Indeed, Hanoi was even willing to sign the 1973 Paris Peace Accord supposedly ending the Vietnam war. But that was not a sign the Communists had given up their goal of dominating the South. It was merely a sign they were willing to use talk of peace along with acts of war to achieve their objectives. The Paris Peace Accord turned out to be the best move they ever made, because it terminated U.S. aid to Saigon. Just two years later, buttressed by aid from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon.
It would hardly be surprising if the Taliban are interested in pursuing a similar strategy today. If I were Mullah Omar that is precisely what I would do: Sign some peace of paper promising an end to support for international terrorism and perhaps to domestic terrorism as well, then, after the U.S. has pulled out (as we have signaled we will do by the end of 2014 in any case), march on Kandahar and then Kabul. The large segment of Afghan society that fears a resurgence of Taliban rule–especially among the Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities–is afraid of precisely this scenario, which is why they mutter about the prospects of civil war whenever negotiations with the Taliban appear to be heating up. Far from guaranteeing peace, an agreement with the Taliban–if made before they are actually defeated–would most likely be consigning Afghanistan to the same kind of hellish Hobbesian struggle the country saw in the 1990s.
None of this is an argument against talking to the Taliban; we talked to the Soviets throughout the Cold War, and there is always some value in sounding out one’s adversaries. But it is an argument for not inflating our expectations and especially for not using a faux peace with the Taliban as an excuse for pulling the plug on our commitment to Afghanistan’s future.