With the announcement Tuesday that the U.S. will engage in direct talks with the Taliban in coming days, the Obama Administration has moved one step closer to implementing it’s slow-motion version of Vermont Republican Senator George Aiken’s famous 1966 suggestion for ending the war in Vietnam: declare victory and go home. The question is whether that strategy will be any more successful this time around.
There are some reasons to think so. The Taliban have made concessions in beginning formal peace talks. Previously they said they wouldn’t engage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai; now they will. And the U.S. hasn’t met all the Taliban’s conditions, including the release of several Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo Bay, though that possibility is on the table.
Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says the Taliban’s flexibility is the result of the successful negotiation of a long-term security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan that will keep American forces in Afghanistan after Washington ends its combat missions there in 2014. Also pushing the Taliban to talks is their lack of popularity at home.
But there’s a long way to go before anything like stability in Afghanistan will be possible. Previously Washington had been adamant that negotiations would only work if the Taliban met three conditions for peace. Said then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011: “They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan.”
A representative of the Taliban did say Tuesday that the Taliban “would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan” and that they would seek “a political and peaceful solution” to the war. A senior U.S. official told reporters, “We didn’t expect immediately for them to break ties with al-Qaeda” because “that’s an outcome of the process.” He said the expected Taliban statement opposing the use of Afghan soil for foreign attacks was “a first step in distancing them … from international terrorism.”
The U.S. has a seasoned envoy at the talks, James Dobbins, formerly of RAND Corp. and a veteran diplomat who had worked in some of the messiest conflict zones in the past 20 years. The U.S. has engaged in discreet talks with the Taliban at least since the Obama Administration accepted the possibility of a settlement with them in 2010, and never gotten far.
The talks open the possibility that by the time the U.S. formally ends its combat missions in 2014 there will at least be some “de-escalation” in the conflict, to use Aiken’s prescriptive word.
Of course, even after the U.S. accepted Aiken’s wisdom by signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the result wasn’t particularly good. For now, though, talks with the Taliban raise the hope that the U.S. exit from Afghanistan won’t involve Air America helicopters evacuating CIA personnel from the roof of the embassy in Kabul.