Checking in on Afghan Peace Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has often expressed his openness to peace talks with the Taliban.

Over the next week, it will start to become clear whether Karzai will be able to deliver on his rhetoric. The signs so far aren't encouraging.

Karzai has planned a national peace conference (or jirga), expected to draw 1,400 pro-government tribal elders and power brokers from across the country, which would set ground rules to follow in future talks with insurgents. But this conference—for the second time—has been pushed back.

Afghan officials say the jirga was rescheduled from this Friday, May 29 to Monday, June 2 due to "technical difficulties," but the Guardian claims a dispute with a group of Afghan parliamentarians is the real reason for the delay.

Fifty Afghan Members of Parliament have threatened to boycott the jirga unless Karzai submits new cabinet nominees to Parliament for confirmation—Karzai submitted a list of nominees earlier this year, but many of them were rejected. Their posts have since remained vacant.

Even if Karzai finds a way to placate these MPs, observers are warning that the jirga will likely be a non-event. It's believed to be unlikely that summit delegates will come to any broad agreement on key questions that will come up in negotiations, such as how much power to offer to the Taliban. Karzai has also been criticized for stacking the conference with his own supporters.

Though there is a certain logic to consulting your own power base before going to the bargaining table, Karzai might profit from including other anti-Taliban voices at the jirga. It could, for example, give him a better idea of what kind of deal ordinary Afghans are likely to accept. But of course, if last year's Afghan presidential election is any indication, paying attention to ordinary Afghans' wishes isn't all that high on Karzai's priority list.

Karzai's negotiations track isn't the only one at the moment, but the alternatives don't seem to be doing much better. For example, representatives of several non-Taliban insurgent groups convened a meeting in the Maldives this past weekend to discuss peace with Kabul. Though Karzai has denied any direct involvement in the talks, several MPs and a provincial governor close to Karzai attended. This meeting proved inconclusive—the 45 attendees agreed only to meet again sometime before October.

Meanwhile, some U.S. troops are coming up with their own ad hoc reconciliation schemes—Marines in Helmand province, for instance, are freeing Taliban prisoners who pledge support to the Afghan government. They're also encouraging many of the reformed insurgents to join the Afghan police. But troops say these efforts are "sporadic at best" and are aimed only at low-level insurgents. Which means they are no substitute for a broader peace process.

The clock is ticking for Kabul to get its act together—Obama's summer surge is supposed to put the Taliban on the defensive, making its leaders more willing to make concessions at the bargaining table.

This plan won't work unless Kabul, and the non-Taliban insurgents it hopes to bargain with first, can get their positions straight. Which means we can only hope Karzai can produce something useful from next week's jirga, and that the delegates who spent last weekend in the Maldives decide to meet again sooner rather than later, and take that opportunity to also produce something of substance.

And with all of the troops and resources NATO and Washington are pouring into Afghanistan, I wish we could rely on something more concrete than hope.