The Taliban's olive branch

Our view: The U.S. should explore peace feelers from the insurgency while continuing to pound its leaders

January 03, 2012

American officials are welcoming a Taliban statement that the Afghan insurgents will set up an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The move is being seen as a first step toward peace talks aimed at reconciling the Taliban and the Western-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, something the U.S. has long sought to broker. A serious offer to negotiate would mark not only a departure from the group's previous refusal to engage in talks but also ease concerns over the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country by 2014.

The U.S. and its Afghan allies must proceed cautiously, however, given that previous peace overtures to the insurgents have come up empty. The most egregious failure occurred in September, when a purported envoy of Taliban leader Mullah Omar assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the Afghan government's High Peace Council, by detonating a bomb hidden in his turban during a meeting set up to outline a framework for talks.

That attack followed U.S. and Afghan attempts last year to open a dialogue with insurgents that would have been almost comical in their ineptitude had not the stakes been so high. The supposed back-channel peace feeler was made through a man who claimed to have Mullah Omar's ear. But ultimately it turned out he was merely a clever impostor who not only left his interlocutors high and dry but absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in NATO money he had been paid to act as a go-between.

U.S. officials say they expect the Taliban's willingness to talk will be conditioned on the release of hundreds of militants held by Afghan and NATO forces, though the group has not yet released a formal list of demands. The U.S. and its allies will have to balance the risks involved in freeing potentially dangerous captives who could turn up on the battlefield against the benefits of securing a Taliban pledge to renounce violence, break with al-Qaida, enter into the democratic process and accept the new Afghan constitution's protections for the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities.

Whether the Taliban would ever accept such terms is a matter of fierce debate. Some Afghan politicians insist that, despite Monday's announcement, the Taliban are still less interested in reconciling with the Karzai government than in toppling it. Moreover, they say, the insurgency is riven by so many competing factions that even if an agreement could be reached with one of them, the others would likely continue fighting.

For his part, Mr. Karzai has been cool to the idea of using Qatar as a channel for negotiations. Initially, he reportedly favored Saudi Arabia or Turkey as a venue, only to grudgingly approve Qatar as a site last week. In any case, it may be months — or years — before the talks produce results, even as the clock ticks down for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

We're hopeful something good may yet come out of the proposed contacts, however inauspicious the outlook now appears. U.S. officials suggest the pounding insurgent leaders have taken from U.S. Special Forces and air attacks in recent years may have paid off by encouraging their arrival at the negotiating table.

But mindful of the repeated failures of the past, the U.S. and its allies can't afford to let up on efforts to continue weakening the enemy through drone strikes and night raids against suspected militants. It may be true that ending the fighting ultimately must come through a diplomatic and political agreement rather than through military victory. But the U.S. needs to remain on guard in case the latest Taliban proposal turns out to be a ploy to secure the release of its captured fighters and buy time to await the departure of all foreign troops. In that case, no amount of diplomacy is likely to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

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