Earlier this month, the Afghan Taliban announced that it has agreed 'in principle' to open up a political office in Qatar, a US ally and emerging diplomatic force in the Middle East. This baby step toward peace is the product of compromises made by both the Taliban and Washington. The Taliban's recognition of the office is an implicit distancing from the uncompromising jihad of al-Qaeda, which would see such a move as an anathema. Meanwhile, Washington has dropped preconditions for talks with the Taliban and abandoned efforts to split the insurgent group. It is engaging with envoys believed to be representing Mullah Omar, the Taliban's leader.
That US-Taliban talks or talks about talks have begun is a feat in itself. But the two belligerents will have to build trust with one another as the next and last major fighting season begins this spring. Both are pursuing an unwieldy fight-talk strategy that is difficult, though not impossible, to manage. The Afghan Taliban is gearing up for renewed battle once the snow melts. Reports claim that both Mullah Omar and a senior al-Qaeda commander have prodded the Pakistani Taliban to abandon its fight against Islamabad and join one last great push before US surge troops withdraw in September.
Clearly, there has been no complete Taliban break with al-Qaeda, though there is little left of the group in the region to ally with. Coalition forces are accelerating their handover of security to the Afghan government that Washington has inadequately involved in these talks with the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai opposed the Doha location of the Taliban office, but had to concede to a decision made by Washington for him. At the same time, Taliban interlocutors have indicated they want to engage only the United States, not the Karzai government, which it paints as illegitimate. It is conceivable that the Taliban is only deferring talks with Kabul, increasing its negotiating power for the time being. Alternatively, the Taliban could be biding its time, readying to swarm once the US and NATO withdraw without a political resolution, a la Vietnam.
To reduce risk of an anarchic civil war, Muslim peacekeepers from non-neighbouring states might be deployed, which would be more likely to be acceptable to most Afghans, and could keep the Taliban and other recalcitrant forces in check upon a US departure. The weak and volatile Karzai is strong enough to sabotage a process he feels left out of. Last year, Afghan officials leaked news of the exploratory US-Taliban talks, forcing a Taliban envoy to go into hiding and putting the process temporarily on hold. Yet, even as US officials now claim they are bringing Karzai on board, it is unclear if the Taliban will deal with him. If it does, a legitimacy-deprived Karzai faces vehement opposition from non-Pashtuns to a Taliban deal.
The prospect of ethnic polarization, even civil war, is real. Without Kabul’s involvement, there can be no peace. But Kabul is not just Karzai: it is a broad set of Afghan powerbrokers, including a highly-oppositional parliament. A lasting peace agreement requires a consensus among all major Afghan factions, including Taliban opponents, on potential constitutional reforms and power sharing. Like Karzai, Pakistan can play the role of spoiler. In 2010, Pakistani intelligence reportedly arrested a Taliban negotiator who met with a member of the Karzai clan. Pakistan, deeply invested in the Afghan insurgency, will use all available measures to ensure minimal desired returns. Islamabad wants to an effective role in talks as co-equals with the Taliban, Kabul, and Washington. It seeks a stable Afghanistan ruled by Pakistan-friendly forces with a minimal Indian influence at best. With the US-Pakistan trust deficit at an all-time low and susceptible to unpredictable shocks, the two countries will find it difficult to develop a necessary roadmap to a stable and secure post-American Afghanistan. And while the Pakistanis demand a seat at the table, an oversized Pakistani presence could alienate essential Afghan partners, who resent their neighbor’s interference in their affairs.
Finally, a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan will not bring an end to Pakistan's own jihadist challenge. Pakistan's civilian and military rulers have no coherent strategy to deal with the long-term threat from the jihadist Frankenstein they have created. An end to the Afghan war will take much, if not most, of the air out of Pakistani jihadists' war against their own state. But many of them are willing to fight to the death and fight they will.