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In this season of good will, there's a rare bit of good cheer about the prospects for peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reason seems to be that some Taliban leaders are concluding that they couldn't win the civil war that might follow U.S. withdrawal of combat troops.
The Taliban appear to recognize that their leverage, paradoxically, may decline when most U.S. forces depart at the end of 2014. The situation has changed since the 1990s, when the Taliban took power after a civil war: Pakistan is no longer a reliable political patron or financial backer, and it may not provide a safe haven.
"The Taliban have realized that they can't achieve military victory," argues a senior Pentagon official. "They can try to wait the U.S. out, but the price is that they won't be able to play in the political transition."
The latest sign of rapprochement came last week in Chantilly, outside Paris, where the French government brokered a gathering of Afghan political leaders that included two representatives of the Taliban, Shahabuddin Delawar and Naeem Wardak. The meeting, organized by a French think tank called the Foundation for Strategic Research, was closely followed by U.S. officials.
The Chantilly dialogue followed similar talks in Kyoto, Japan, on June 28 between Qari Din Mohammad, a member of the Taliban's senior shura and former Afghan minister of planning, and Masoom Stanekzai, head of the Afghan High Peace Council. That meeting was brokered by Doshisha University in Kyoto, again with U.S. encouragement.
The Taliban negotiators are part of what U.S. officials view as a "pragmatist" faction headed by Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, the chief of the Taliban senior shura and the deputy to the group's leader, Mohammed Omar. Opposing the pragmatists is a hard-line faction headed by Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantanamo detainee who is head of the Taliban military commission.
The pragmatists' case for negotiation has been strengthened by Pakistan's recent cooperation with the United States and Afghanistan in planning for the future. Knowing that the U.S. combat role is ending, the Pakistanis have concluded that a civil war across their border (of the sort they helped sponsor in the 1990s) isn't in their interest. So they've reached out not just to the Afghan government but to the Northern Alliance, a bloc led by ethnic Tajiks, which is the leading adversary of the Taliban and its Pashtun followers.
In the talks in France last week, wrote Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in The Daily Beast, the Taliban hoped to reach out to prominent members of the Northern Alliance who would be attending.
As a next step toward reconciliation, the United States would like to see a resumption of what is known as the "Doha process," which stalled last March. This would involve an exchange of detainees and the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, which would be a locus for broader political discussions. It's hoped this process might lead to an eventual cease-fire in Afghanistan, though Taliban leaders are said to resist any formula that might look to their followers like surrender.
The United States insists on several "necessary outcomes" in a negotiated peace, including Taliban renunciation of al-Qaida and acceptance of the Afghan constitution (and its promise of women's rights). Omar has come close in his recent public statements. In an Oct. 24 message for the Muslim holiday known as Eid al-Adha, he said: "We are neither thinking of monopolizing power nor intend to spark off domestic war." And in an Aug 16 message on the Eid al-Fitr holiday, he said the Taliban "will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against anyone." But the Taliban hasn't yet offered the explicit rejection of al-Qaida or the acceptance of the constitution the United States seeks.
A hint of greater Taliban flexibility came in meetings last July between representatives of the British Royal United Services Institute and four senior members of the Taliban. In these discussions, the British reported in a recent paper, the Taliban leaders said they "deeply regret their past association with al-Qaida" and that the group would be open to negotiating a cease fire as part of a general settlement. What's more, "the Taliban are willing to accept a long-term U.S. military presence and bases" because they fear meddling in the future by Afghanistan's neighbors.
It's not peace for the holidays. But the recent moves toward serious negotiation with the Taliban suggest that the Afghan situation, bleak as it may look to most Americans, offers some hope of progress in the new year.