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Jeffrey Laurenti Headshot

Slow-Motion Rush to an Afghan Peace

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Afghan president Hamid Karzai is feeling rushed.

After all those years of being constrained by the Bush administration's disapproval of negotiations with Taliban "dead-enders," Karzai now sees Barack Obama leapfrogging past his government to conduct talks directly with the Taliban. And with a whiff of the paranoia that most Afghan leaders have historically and not unreasonably had toward their sworn supporters, both foreign and domestic, he fears being left behind as road kill.

Obama in 2011 pivoted decisively toward seeking a political solution, having given the U.S. military a two-year troop "surge" to reverse the resurgent Taliban's sweeping gains since 2005. With Bush-era illusions of victory shattered, Bush-era preconditions on opening talks morphed into "red lines" for the settlement to result from such talks. And a slow-motion minuet toward negotiations began.

U.S. officials talked directly, under German auspices, with one of the closest aides to the Taliban Guardian of the Faithful, Mullah Omar, and under Pakistani auspices with the most brutal Taliban-allied faction, the Haqqanis. At Obama's request the U.N. Security Council separated the Taliban from the strict U.N. sanctions against Al Qaeda, and at year's end, with Obama's approval, Qatar permitted the opening there of a Taliban political office.

Karzai balked at the Qatar office for the Taliban, and relented only under strong U.S. pressure. Despite pious U.S. affirmation of an "Afghan-led" peace process, the fact is that intra-Afghan negotiations will only occur if they are embedded within a larger international negotiation. It is the foreign forces, whom Karzai does not control, that the Taliban are fighting so doggedly to expel; the guarantee the United States must have of no return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan is one that Karzai's regime cannot deliver.

There are, of course, many different stakeholders and potential spoilers circling around any negotiating process -- anti-Karzai factions in Kabul, civil society groups around Afghanistan, several insurgent factions, neighbors concerned about Afghanistan, neighbors concerned about neighbors, along with more distant countries and aid providers. Today the New York Times called for the Obama administration to support an "international mediator" to ensure the full mix of participants is at the table.

That includes Iran, with which Washington seems incapable of talking without another adult in the room. It includes Pakistan, an indispensable partner in a successful negotiation that is not able to impose a settlement on its Afghan guests but is demonstrably capable of sabotaging one that excludes it.

And, as the international task force led by Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas Pickering noted in first detailing the international facilitator concept last year, the peace talks will also have to have at their heart an all-Afghan negotiating track -- not just the Karzai government and Taliban, but the many strands of Afghan society that have gained standing and autonomy in the decade since the suffocating Taliban emirate collapsed. It is the participation of these Afghans, more so than of the Kabul heirs of the Taliban's long-time enemies in the Northern Alliance, that will best ensure the maintenance of the human rights and political liberties inscribed in the current Afghan constitution.

For all the criticism justifiably directed at the leadership of Hamid Karzai, his respect for those rights has earned him a preeminent place in Afghanistan's negotiations. In an Afghan novelty, his opponents are not lined up before firing squads. The record of his tenure in expanding access to schooling, health, and safe drinking water has transformed Afghans' expectations of government, in ways that the benighted Taliban regime could never deliver.

There are signs, too, that leading Taliban are becoming aware of the profound changes in Afghan society. When they sought to re-impose their old strictures against schooling, particularly of girls, in areas that came under their sway after 2005, the backlash from villagers forced them to retreat. Now, as analysts Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco report, in provinces where Taliban are active the Afghan Ministry of Education has allowed a tacit accommodation with them: state schools there stay open, free from attack, but with a curriculum acceptable to the Taliban and hiring of religion teachers linked to them.

Former senior Taliban official Abdul Salam Zaeef claims that Taliban leaders increasingly recognize that human rights, freedom of speech, and even female education are compatible with Islam (something long since discovered in most of the Muslim world); they would not, he says, revert to their emirate ways. Most Afghans not associated with the insurgency remain skeptical, but a negotiating table is a better place to test the supposed change of heart than the battlefield.

American champions of continuing the war warn against a "faux peace," insisting, like Max Boot, that there can be no agreement with the Taliban "before they are actually defeated" (though when they were actually defeated, in 2002, the Bush administration disdained talk of any accommodation with them).

Yet even Boot affirms "some value in sounding out one's adversaries." And the United States always has its default strategy of keeping a small but lethal presence in Afghanistan to back up Karzai and his successors in the event the Taliban don't deal.

All in all, it seems the new year is the time to designate that international facilitator and get those multi-track negotiations going.