Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor for The Nation.
One-and-a-half cheers for President Obama's Afghanistan doings. In the face of unmitigated demagogy from Mitt Romney, who said he'd refuse to talk to the Taliban and instead would crush them on the battlefield, Obama is pushing ahead with negotiations. Sadly, Obama yesterday defended the use of drones by the CIA, and he hasn't endorsed the French proposal to speed the withdrawal of international forces by 2013, instead of 2014.
But at least Obama, having ended the war in Iraq, is moving toward ending the Afghan war too. The current plan is to get talks with the Taliban underway officially by the time NATO meets in May, while accelerating efforts to turn various districts and provinces over to Afghan forces by 2014.
Lots of problems accompany the Taliban talks, however.
First, it isn't really clear if the Taliban want to talk seriously, or if they're just going through the motions so that they can resume an offensive to seize Kabul once the United States and its allies depart. If so, there's no guarantee that such a strategy would work, since it's almost certain that the United States, the UK, the French and others will stick around in Kabul in various training and military supply capacities for many years, and there's lot of opposition to the brutal Taliban from both Pashtuns and, especially, non-Pashtun forces that made up the old Northern Alliance. The insurgency would continue, under this scenario, but retaking control of Afghanistan would not be a cakewalk for the Taliban and its allies in Pakistan. As theWall Street Journal reports:
In recent public statements, the Taliban have made an effort to appear a more moderate force, promising peaceful relations with neighboring countries and respect for human rights. The big unknown is whether this new rhetoric represents a meaningful transformation — or is merely designed to sugarcoat the Taliban's real aims.... Despite a new willingness to negotiate with the U.S., however, the Taliban's leadership still believes it can reach its war aim of seizing Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan after most foreign forces withdraw in 2014, American military commanders agree.
Second, there's a great struggle for power between the United States and Pakistan over what might happen in talks. The United States and the Taliban independently opened an exploratory dialogue several years ago, and the Obama administration had hoped it would have achieved enough progress to be celebrated at the global summit meeting on Afghanistan late last year. Meanwhile, President Karzai of Afghanistan is seeking separate talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban, which depends on Pakistan for support and sustenance, chafes under Pakistan's heavy-handed control. So even though the United States, backed by Germany, has been angling for the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, the thumb-shaped emirate in the Persian Gulf, both Pakistan and Karzai seem to prefer talks in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps that's because Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are close allies, and Saudi Arabia — along with the United Arab Emirates — was one of only two countries in the world, besides Pakistan, that recognized the old Taliban regime (1996–2001). Karzai, who wants a deal with the Taliban, wants to make sure that such a deal preserves his role, and he's cozying up to Pakistan as an ally. (Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, arrives in Kabul today, and during Khar's visit Karzai will push Pakistan to allow access to Taliban officials.) It's murky, though, because there's no reason to think that Pakistan will end up supporting a continued role for Karzai. Hopefully, the U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar and the Pakistan-backed Karzai-Taliban talks in Saudi Arabia will converge.
It isn't clear at all that Pakistan supports any sort of peace process for Afghanistan unless it cements Pakistan's influence in that unfortunate country. Pakistan's military is up in arms over a series of events in Pakistan in 2011, from drone attacks to a shootout in the streets involving a CIA officer to the killing of Osama bin Laden to US assertions that the Al Qaeda–linked Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. On top of that, the civilian government of Pakistan has been threatened with a military coup for months, and the controversy over an alleged memo purporting to be from President Zardai and Ambassador Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, that called for U.S. help in thwarting a coup has stirred things up further. When US envoy Marc Grossman, who's organizing the talks with the Taliban, tried to visit Islamabad last month, he was rudely rebuffed. Not a good sign for Pakistan's cooperation with peace talks.