JUNE 18, 2013
Taliban Step Toward Afghan Peace Talks Is Hailed by U.S.
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and ALISSA J. RUBIN
WASHINGTON -- The Taliban signaled a breakthrough in efforts to start Afghan peace negotiations on Tuesday, announcing the opening of a political office in Qatar and a new readiness to talk with American and Afghan officials, who said in turn that they would travel to meet insurgent negotiators there within days.
If the talks begin, they will be a significant step in peace efforts that have been locked in an impasse for nearly 18 months, after the Taliban walked out and accused the United States of negotiating in bad faith. American officials have long pushed for such talks, believing them crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan after the 2014 Western military withdrawal.
But the Taliban may have other goals in moving ahead. Their language made clear that they sought to be dealt with as a legitimate political force with a long-term role to play beyond the insurgency. In that sense, in addition to aiding in talks, the actual opening of their office in Qatar -- nearly a year and a half after initial plans to open it were announced and then soon after suspended -- could be seen as a signal that the Taliban's ultimate aim is recognition as an alternative to the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
By agreeing to negotiations, the Taliban can "come out in the open, engage the rest of the region as legitimate actors, and it will be very difficult to prevent that when we recognize the office and are talking to the office," said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The United States, already heading toward its military exit, has little to offer beyond prisoner exchanges, and the Taliban are "not trying to help our strategy," Mr. Nasr warned. "They're basically trying to put in place their own strategy."
The Taliban overture coincided with an important symbolic moment in the American withdrawal: the formal announcement on Tuesday of a complete security handover from American troops to Afghan forces across the country. That shift had already become obvious in recent months as the Afghan forces had tangibly taken the lead -- and as the Taliban had responded by increasing the tempo of attacks against them.
Yet since at least 2009, even top American generals maintained that a permanent peace could not be won on the battlefield, and American diplomats have engaged in nearly three years of holding secret meetings and working through diplomatic back channels to lay the groundwork for talks to begin.
The opening for Tuesday's developments appeared to come in the third week of May, when the Qataris told the United States that the Taliban might be ready to start talking again, according to an American official with knowledge of the talks.
To that point, diplomats and intermediaries from Germany, Norway and Britain also played crucial roles, administration officials said Tuesday, and some said they believed Pakistan had played a more active role in recent months to urge the exiled Taliban leadership to move toward talks.
President Obama called the Taliban's announcement "an important first step toward reconciliation," but cautioned that it was only "a very early step."
"We anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road," Mr. Obama said at a meeting with President François Hollande of France at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland.
There have been plenty of bumps already. Over the last 18 months, the peace effort has encountered pressure from nearly every quarter at one time or another: Mr. Karzai, the exiled Taliban leadership, the Taliban's patrons in Pakistan and critics in the United States who have reacted coolly to what they perceive as talking to terrorists.
A pair of Afghan mullahs made the Taliban announcement in a televised address from Doha, the capital of Qatar, cutting a red ribbon at the villa that will serve as the office. The Taliban's political and military goals "are limited to Afghanistan," said Muhammad Naim, the Taliban spokesman who read the statement.
The Taliban "would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan," Mr. Naim added, and they seek "a political and peaceful solution" to the conflict.
The appearance seemed to answer one immediate question hanging over the peace efforts: who was empowered to speak for the Taliban's secretive leader in exile, Mullah Muhammad Omar.
American officials said recent signals had made them sure that the Qatar office was being opened by Mullah Omar's true intermediaries. As well, the Taliban's wording on Tuesday adhered to previous requirements by American officials, officials said.
In particular, the statement represented the beginning of what is hoped will become a public break with Al Qaeda, which the Taliban sheltered before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the officials said.
Along with getting the Taliban to disown international terrorist groups, the ultimate goal of the talks, from a Western and Afghan government point of view, is to persuade the Taliban to disarm and accept the Afghan Constitution.
While Western officials have in the past suggested that the Constitution can be changed, the Obama administration stressed Tuesday that accepting the charter's "protections for women and minorities" was considered a condition of any eventual peace deal.
In the shorter term, American officials said, envoys were to meet this week with Taliban representatives in Qatar, and then members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which is to represent the government in talks, were to travel to the Persian Gulf emirate to sit down with the insurgents.
But the first meetings will probably feature little more than an exchange of agendas, another senior administration official said, cautioning against expectations that the talks might yield substantive results any time soon. "There is no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all," the official said.
Talks between the United States and the Taliban "can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans, and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect," the official said. "So it is going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all."
Mr. Karzai signaled his acceptance of the office's opening at a ceremony on Tuesday celebrating the transfer of all security responsibilities across Afghanistan to Afghan forces. But he made it clear that he wanted any talks moved to Afghanistan as soon as possible, and his support for the process getting under way in Qatar seemed tepid.
"The reason we are worried is the hands of the outsiders," he said, focusing his comments on his government's concerns. "We will go forward cautiously."
Among Mr. Karzai's concerns is that the Taliban will use the Doha office as a forum to try to re-establish their political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining the office to peace talks.
American officials said they, too, wanted the talks to move to Afghanistan eventually. But with the Taliban insistent that the talks be held on neutral ground, "it's not going to be possible in the near future," one administration official said.
Mr. Karzai's concerns, moreover, did not appear unfounded. The Taliban, in their statement on Tuesday, offered an expansive view of the role to be played by the Qatar office. The office would allow the Taliban "to improve its relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks," as well as help them establish contact with the United Nations and aid groups, and to talk to the news media.
The statement allowed for potential meetings with Afghan officials, but that was qualified with a terse addition: "if needed."
The insurgents offered little clarity on why they were now willing to open the office and begin talks with the United States and the government of Mr. Karzai, whom they have derided as an American puppet for years.
American officials said there was no agreement on what was once a central enticement offered by the United States: a swap of five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the sole American soldier known to be held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The failure of the proposed exchange was the main reason the Taliban offered for suspending preliminary talks early in 2012.
"Of course we expect the Taliban to raise this issue," said Jennifer R. Psaki, a spokeswoman for the State Department. She added that Ambassador James F. Dobbins, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will lead the team headed to Doha, would also raise the prospect of Sergeant Bergdahl's return.
Without the prisoner swap, it was hard to discern what, if anything, the Taliban's leadership could show the rank-and-file to keep them fighting while talks moved forward.
Western diplomats in Kabul and officials in Washington said they believed the Taliban had grown weary of their international isolation and wanted to shed their outcast status. And in the end, the group's announcement on Tuesday came at little evident cost: the insurgents do not need to make realistic proposals or strike an actual deal, some diplomats and officials warned.
"If they have any long-term plan to be involved in running Afghanistan, international recognition is an important part even if they aren't going to come to the table with real offers of peace at this point," one Western diplomat in Kabul said.
Matthew Rosenberg reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Sharifullah Sahak and Habib Zahori from Kabul; Jackie Calmes from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland; and Steven Lee Myers from Washington.