Matt Waldman
Associate Fellow, International Security

This week the West's long-time enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, established an office in Doha. This was the subject of US-Taliban talks during 2011 but the dialogue was put on ice for over a year after US insistence on preconditions, mutual misunderstandings, Afghan government resistance, and divisions within the Taliban. So, what has changed to enable this to happen now, and why has President Karzai reacted so negatively? Factors relating to the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government help to explain the latest developments. 

Taliban steps towards talks

Importantly, for the first time the Taliban has indicated publicly that it will meet with Afghan government officials – a long-standing condition for the opening of the office. The Taliban now says that it is ready 'to have meetings with Afghans in due appropriate time'. What this actually means is that it will meet with members of the Afghan High Peace Council, the group appointed by President Karzai to handle reconciliation with the Taliban. 

For several years Taliban leaders have occasionally met with Afghan officials. Such discussions are reported to have taken place on the margins of a meeting in Kyoto last June, and in Chantilly, last December. The difference now is that the Taliban, which has long denounced the Karzai regime as 'puppets of the invaders', has said publicly, albeit obliquely, that it will talk to them. 

There are several possible reasons for the Taliban's change of public policy. This includes war fatigue, pressure from Afghan communities, and concern about the emergence of a reinvigorated anti-Taliban coalition backed by regional states. Its leaders are resentful of exile and what they see as manipulation by Pakistan's military. They want political influence in Afghanistan, and for the Taliban to be internationally recognised as a legitimate political movement. They are uneasy about the prospects of once again becoming international pariahs. Time will tell if Taliban leaders are seriously interested in negotiations. But for the pragmatists among them, the opening of an office constitutes a step in the right direction. 

The US shift on reconciliation 

Another factor, and arguably the most significant, is that the US has dropped its insistence that the Taliban publicly disavow Al-Qaeda as a precondition to the opening of the office. Some observers highlight the significance of the Taliban's statement that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used to threaten other nations. One US official, reported in the Guardian, described this as 'a first step in distancing them from international terrorism.' 

But the Taliban has made these points several times over the past two years. In November 2011 Mullah Omar, the group's reclusive leader, said: 'We do not want to harm other nations and countries.' In April of last year, the Taliban issued a statement specifically on Al-Qaeda which said: 'We have no intention of causing harm to anyone, nor will we allow anyone to use our soil against anyone else.' 

So why does the US now consider Taliban disavowal of Al-Qaeda as being an expected outcome of talks, rather than a precondition? At one level, the US position reflects the reality that current links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are limited and the groups subscribe to different ideologies. In fact, being nationally focused, the Afghan Taliban has never conducted an attack outside Afghanistan, nor is there any indication that it seeks to do so. The US may also recognise the constraints that Taliban leaders face. Many live in Pakistan and fear that outright disavowal of Al-Qaeda would trigger deadly retaliation by extremists. 

But more importantly, there is now greater US recognition of Taliban resilience. Indeed, the movement may be stronger now than it was before the US military surge. According to ISAF, insurgents launched twice as many attacks across the country in 2012, than they did in 2008, before the surge. And the rate of Taliban attacks is rising. The Afghanistan NGO Security Office has said that insurgent attacks in the first quarter of 2013 were up 46% compared to the same period in 2012. 

The attacks are taking a huge toll on civilians – according to the UN over 3,000 have been killed so far this year – and Afghan national security forces are reported to be sustaining an average of 250 fatalities a month. On 18 June, NATO completed the transition of security lead to Afghan forces across the country. But in light of such high attrition rates, as well as critical logistical, capability and organizational weaknesses, it is far from certain that Afghan forces will be able to guarantee future stability. 

US officials appear to have recognised that the best hope of achieving peace in Afghanistan is ultimately through negotiations. In March, ISAF Commander General Dunford even went so far as to say that 'the solution to the war is political reconciliation'. Consider, additionally, that President Obama is now in his second term and perhaps willing to take more political risks. In this light, it is possible to see why the US would be willing to show flexibility in its preconditions to talks. 

The Afghan government's turnabout

Another key factor which enabled the office to open was the apparent, but perhaps transient, rapprochement between Kabul and Doha. President Karzai has long feared that a Taliban office in Qatar would enhance the Taliban's international status, while marginalizing the Afghan government from peace talks. However, Afghan-Qatari relations improved. Notably, just over a week ago, President Karzai met with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa, after which they announced renewed cooperation on the Afghanistan peace process. Presumably, President Karzai had been sufficiently reassured in order to give the green light to the opening of the Taliban office. 

But his subsequent strong objection to the office and suspension of the Afghanistan-US security dialogue suggests it didn't quite go as he had expected. The Taliban have always sought to establish the office in their name: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. But Karzai is indignant at events which, in his eyes, look like the inauguration of an embassy of a government in exile, rather than an office for talks with the recognised Afghan government. That purpose is barely evident from the Taliban's statement. Furthermore, he is acutely suspicious of Western intentions and has long felt pressured into accepting the Qatar office, despite his preference for talks in Afghanistan, or failing that, in Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Implications and the road ahead

What does this all mean for political reconciliation? Initially, the opening of the office is likely to give momentum to pragmatic Taliban leaders and it seems that a dialogue involving at least the US and the Taliban will be re-established. In due course, it may expand to include Afghan officials. But there are a number of reasons to be cautious. 

As noted, President Karzai fears the office will undermine his own authority, already threatened by the recent surge in Taliban attacks. There is no guarantee that he will back the Doha talks. Indeed, he has already said that talks should move to Afghanistan. 

After years of bitter conflict and several failed peace initiatives, there is deep mistrust between the parties. This will be difficult to overcome. Taliban hardliners, in the military leadership, in affiliated sub-groups like the 'Haqqani network' and amongst younger insurgent rank and file, are likely to be sceptical of the move. Some may take steps to disrupt and undermine any progress. The assassination of High Peace Council Chairman, Professor Rabbani, in September 2011 is one of several high profile attempts to disrupt steps towards reconciliation. We can expect more such efforts. Elements within the Afghan government, the 'Northern Alliance' or Pakistan's military might also seek to derail talks, especially if they feel marginalized or excluded from them. 

The best way to overcome these challenges is the establishment of a robust, structured and inclusive dialogue that seeks to build confidence between the parties and address the issues of contention. To avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that have previously hampered progress, this latest push for dialogue needs to be facilitated by effective mediators. Expert mediation involves continuous liaison, support, coordination – and clarification of the parties' respective undertakings. This could help the parties to navigate potential pitfalls and reduce the likelihood of setbacks, such as President Karzai's reaction to the office. 

At some level, the talks must involve Pakistan. The Pakistani military's record of providing sanctuary and support to the Afghan Taliban means its backing is essential for the process to succeed. Even if talks do progress, there are major questions about the inclusion of representatives of Afghan society; the human rights implications of any peace agreement, especially for women and minorities; and how the commitments made under any agreement could be enforced. 

And there is another remaining hurdle: news about so-called peace talks is often bad news by virtue of the fact that you're hearing about it. Most successful peace processes, such as in Northern Ireland, have required years of confidential discussions. Without secrecy, parties constantly feel they need to project an image of strength to their respective constituencies, which hardens positions and hinders progress. The events of the past few days signify a small step forward – but a great deal of difficult work lies ahead. 

Project on Afghanistan.