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Khalil Nouri

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Afghanistan: A Non-Kosher U.S. Taliban Deal

Posted: 01/11/12 05:05 PM ET

Taliban and "peace mission" -- these words do not fit together in the minds of Afghans who know the Taliban's history. But they are the words that we have seen in recent publications, stating that the Taliban intend to open a "peace mission" office in Qatar. The idea is that foreign diplomats can stop by, share a cup of tea, eat some munchies, and talk about ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Ideally, the talks and negotiations would thrust forward until the parties accept the terms and conditions for a cordial settlement amongst themselves. However, because the existing political climate in Kabul is so extremely convoluted, fragile and oddly murky with lingering recollections of the country's history of post-Soviet withdrawal turmoil; an unfamiliar political power sharing between the Taliban's 12th century Islamo-fascist mindset and the corrupt and warlord infested government of Hamid Karzai is a recipe for chaos and failure. These are the dire mixtures that will not only bear bitter fruit in this already decades old war-stricken country; the greater danger is the spillover or ignition of a regional conflict.

Qatar's controversial decision was only grudgingly accepted by Mr. Karzai, who apparently fears that foreign powers -- including the United States -- will deal directly with the Taliban, sidelining his fragile and corrupt government. For Washington, a negotiated return of the Taliban in a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul may allow U.S. President Barack Obama an exit with honor from Afghanistan. However, there is fear among many Afghans that the Taliban are trying to cast themselves as a reasonable, or at least even, counterweight to the current erratic leadership in Kabul just to get back into legitimacy. The coming friction of attempted sharing of the lion's den can clearly be seen on the horizon, because there is only room for one or the other, but not both. Just imagine how conditions would be in the United States if each member of Congress had their own militia to back their political position... there would only be bloody chaos.

The mere idea of talking to the Taliban may seem, in itself, like an admission of defeat by the West. It certainly wasn't the mission plan in 2001, and it may yet have horrible consequences. But there are plenty of policymakers in Washington and London who now see it as the best, and only, way to proceed. Not only might it spare Afghanistan from decades of internal conflict -- the thinking goes -- but, played right, it could also limit Pakistan's influence in the country after 2015, and therefore the Taliban's too.

But, in our native view, we see a totally different outcome for the upcoming political landscape in Afghanistan; first and foremost the Taliban will be asking the United States for an unconditional withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan, and to give up all objections to the Taliban returning to power (as part of a "coalition" with the Karzai government). Then they will ask for the building of a headquarters compound just for them, and a formal announcement that the Taliban are no longer an enemy of the United States; a statement that there is no desire for a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan, an unconditional release of all Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay (allowing them to move to Qatar); and lastly, a formal apology for brining the war to the Taliban who were not part of the 9/11 terror plot.

Having demanded all of that, then the Taliban will say, not to the U.S. but to the Afghan people that they are the only credible partners to negotiate with right now. That the troublesome, corrupt government of Hamid Karzai cannot be trusted to end the war, cannot even be trusted to protect people's money or pay their bills; and that they, and only they, can speak for the Afghan people.

And on the issue with Pakistan; its Afghan policy is motivated by its quest for "strategic depth," and many suspect its wish list is but a new face and possible spoiler for U.S. strategy.

As Pakistan desires to have a role in any transfer of power in Afghanistan, the challenge ahead is not just defining Pakistan's role but also understanding overall U.S. objectives.

What does the United States really want out of these talks? A quick-fix settlement to provide just enough cover for its war-weary coalition to pull their troops out before Afghanistan descends into a civil war; or a serious process that might offer an enduring peace? Does the United States believe the Taliban are now more amenable to talks than they were before, or that a possible destabilization of Pakistan could go into effect? Are domestic political pressures in the United States driving it towards a quick exit?

The real concern for the U.S. should be that it might get blindsided. If the United States is seen as holding up the peace process because it is trying to force its way out of Afghanistan for any of the above reasons; or if Mr. Karzai is proactive in discussions with the resentful Taliban, and in the process the U.S. gets blamed for prolonging the conflict by the Afghan Public, the United States will stand to lose even more; or the conflict could spill over into a wider regional conflict.

One main thing is for sure, that there is no solid Afghan leadership to unify the war stricken country. Therefore, all these non-kosher dealings will stall the peace process until there is sound leadership in Kabul. The Afghan National Reconciliation's strategy plan may offer the only real leadership solution.

Khalil Nouri is the cofounder of New World Strategies Coalition Inc, a native think-tank for a nonmilitary solution studies for Afghanistan, and a member of Afghanistan Study Group