01/13/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Is Peace With the Taliban Possible?

A new video apparently showing U.S. Marines desecrating three Afghan corpses (BBC) has prompted condemnation from the Afghan government, the Taliban, NATO, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The video comes at a sensitive time; the Obama administration is in the midst of diplomatic efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban to end the decade-long war. Following a Taliban statement that it planned to set up a political office in Qatar, U.S. envoy Marc Grossman will visit Afghanistan and Qatar next week to continue consultations. The Taliban has said that the latest video will not affect (Reuters) the initiative to start peace negotiations, but some in the Afghan government remain skeptical.

What's at Stake

Peace talks with the Taliban are are seen as a crucial element in the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has announced 2014 as the deadline for withdrawal of nearly all U.S troops, currently numbering 90,000, with 23,000 to return before the end of this year. But the pace of drawdown of the remaining 68,000 troops is undetermined. In a U.S. election year, and amid growing public frustration with the war, there have been calls from some within the administration for a faster withdrawal (WSJ).

The Debate

The peace talks are riddled with challenges: the Taliban has sought the release of at least five senior Taliban leaders from the Guantanamo Bay prison; Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains wary of any talks that could sideline his government; and poor Afghan governance and safe havens in Pakistan continue to undermine a lasting solution.

In addition, the Taliban and U.S. troops continue to fight each other. A recent statement from the Taliban said that peace talks did not mean an end to fighting, nor did it mean that they accepted the Afghan constitution. A classified National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan (McClatchy) handed to President Obama last month reportedly also concluded that the Afghan Taliban leadership based in the Pakistani city of Quetta has not given up its goal of reclaiming power.

But Afghanistan expert Michael Semple says the new Taliban office in Qatar is a game-changer. He writes in Foreign Affairs that both Kabul and Islamabad are on board, giving reconciliation a better chance than ever before.

Policy Options

A reduced U.S. presence could also help create circumstances in which the countries in the region could "best address the threats they face from militancy," says Nigel Inkster (Telegraph), the former deputy head of Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 and one of the authors of a new report by London-based think tank IISS. However, the IISS study cautions that eastern Afghanistan will continue to be ungoverned territory contested among warlord factions and recommends continuing at least $6 billion per year in aid for Afghan security forces.

The bigger question for the United States and the international community is "whether they can establish the security and economic superstructures necessary to improve governance in Afghanistan," writes Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings Institution.

Background Materials

Der Spiegel reports that the Taliban office in Qatar largely came about through painstaking German diplomacy, which succeeded in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

On a blog for The Diplomat, Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, examines whether the Taliban are ready to stop fighting and are serious about peace talks.

This CFR Interactive looks at the ten-year war in Afghanistan.

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