Taliban talks: breakthrough for peace or mission impossible?
Historic moment as Mullah Omar agrees to talk to Kabul regime face to face, not through proxies
THE NEWS that senior Taliban leaders are to meet representatives of President Hamid Karzai's government for talks in Saudi Arabia is a real step change in Afghanistan's long and twisted conflict. This will be the first time that Taliban of the Quetta Shura, the group headed by the movement's founder Mullah Omar, will have agreed to talk to the Kabul government.
Until now the Taliban have denounced the Kabul regime as stooges, infidels and traitors. Recently they have agreed to set up their own office in Qatar with the main ostensible purpose of talking to the Americans about removing their troops and those of their allies from Afghan soil as quickly as possible.
Once the rumours started appearing about the new talks in Saudi Arabia, it was surprising how quickly they were confirmed from Kabul, Quetta and Islamabad in Pakistan, as well as from Saudi Arabia itself.
The talks now appear to be just one element in a major diplomatic offensive to get a deal for Afghanistan after the international combat troops go in 2014. This week Pakistan's dynamic foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar will be in Kabul for talks with the prime minister as well as Karzai himself.
For once senior representatives of the governments and shadow governments of the Taliban seem prepared to talk face to face, and not through proxies. As significant is the apparent lack of pre-conditions this time round. Hitherto it was always stated that Taliban leaders and soldiers could enjoy 'reconciliation' and 'reintegration' provided they forswore arms and pledged their loyalty to the current constitution of Afghanistan. This led to relatively thin results with only a few giving up their old fighting ways.
But this time it is different according to a former member of the old Taliban government of Kabul. Speaking in the influential Pakistan daily Dawn, Maulvi Arsala Rahmani said the Taliban was seeking to rejoin the government in Kabul, "though not in the same way as before". He said they had modified their views on a number of things, and now would contest elections and stand for office like members of other groups and parties.
So what has brought this apparent change of heart and direction? The simple answer is that all sides now realise that there is much less time than they thought to come to a deal over Afghanistan after the Americans and allies go. If he didn't know it before, Hamid Karzai must have realised from his recent European trip that America and its allies are going to pull out faster than they said before – and intend to get most of their troops out of combat roles by the end of the summer of 2013.
President Sarkozy has said that French troops will leave next year and not 2014 – while his rival in the presidential race in France, Francois Hollande, says he wants them out this year. President Obama, too, is likely to press for a swifter retreat at the Nato summit in Chicago in May, as Afghanistan has become toxic in the American election campaign.
The early withdrawal raises two awkward questions for those like the Taliban and the successors of Hamid Karzai who would seek to rule Afghanistan after 2014. Even if they get a deal, can they really bring peace and tranquility to the people of Afghanistan? There are now so many small local wars within the provinces, clans, tribes and mafia groups to whom the current economy of narco-brigandage is a way of life, that they will be hard for anyone to police and control.
The second big question is how to include and tie all the interested neighbours into a settlement – particularly those that haven't been mentioned in the rumours and confirmed reports about talks and negotiations.
Russia, China, India and Iran will have to be included in any stabilisation pact for Afghanistan. Dealing these powers into talks between Kabul, Islamabad, the Taliban of Quetta, Kandahar and Peshawar, and Saudi Arabia is going to be a tall order. It isn't only the pessimists who say that in the present climate it's a diplomatic mission impossible.