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Managing Expectations in Taliban Talks

If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

The odds that the talks this time will produce a breakthrough are not high. The best bet would be a change of heart in Islamabad: the Pakistani government, the primary patron of the Taliban, has long feared it would lose influence in Afghanistan if its proxies cut a separate deal with Kabul. Perhaps the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence–the real national-security decision-makers–are rethinking this policy because they fear the rise of fundamentalism represented not only by the Afghan Taliban but the Pakistan Taliban as well. Perhaps. But there is little sign of a substantive rethinking of Pakistan’s policy, which it has consistently pursued since the 1980s if not before, of sponsoring militant Islamist organizations within Afghanistan.

And there is little sign that the Taliban are so war weary that they are ready to give up. Why should they, when they know that, thanks to President Obama’s self-imposed timeline, the bulk of U.S. troops will be gone within a year and a half? Taliban foot soldiers in Afghanistan have suffered serious, though not crippling, setbacks, but their leaders continue to live in safety in Pakistan. If Obama were serious about pursuing negotiations, he would never have announced that timeline and he would have pushed the Taliban much harder militarily by delaying the drawdown of U.S. forces.

History shows that insurgent groups such as the IRA, the Basque ETA, the FMLN in El Salvador, and FARC in Colombia only get serious about making peace when they have lost all hope of a military victory. The Taliban cause, alas, is far from hopeless. There is good reason for Taliban commanders to imagine they might yet attain power at gunpoint–and for that reason it is unlikely that they will lay down their guns.

There is nothing inherently wrong with talking to the Taliban. At the very least it may be possible to gain useful intelligence. But if Karzai, under American pressure, makes major concessions to the Taliban, the likely result will not be peace in our time but rather the revival of Afghanistan’s civil war, because the old Northern Alliance will not accept any deal that cedes significant power to their historic enemies.



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