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The US finally agrees to direct talks with the Taliban, as demanded by the Afghan people

As PN entered production, news broke of dramatic developments in the Afghan conflict. The Taliban were finally admitted to talks with the US government and the Afghan government, something polls show that the Afghan people have long desired. 

Then, just as suddenly, the talks seemed to be called off — by the Kabul administration. 

Afghan president Hamid Karzai was said to have been offended by the way that the Taliban’s political office in Qatar had been officially opened on 18 June, with the raising of the white Taliban flag, and many references to the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, the name used by the Taliban during its five years in government.

The Taliban officials who presided over the opening ceremony did not even bother to mention the Afghan government – their remarks were focused on the US as a negotiating partner.

Karzai’s office released a statement saying: ‘The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, the way it was opened and messages it contained, contradicts the guarantees given by the US to Afghanistan’. His government also suspended negotiations over the post-2014 US presence in Afghanistan (the ‘bilateral security and defence agreement’).

In response to the pressure from Qatar, the Taliban are reported to have removed a sign proclaiming the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and to have lowered (but not removed) their flag. As PN went to press, the insurgents were considering renaming their headquarters the ‘political bureau of the Taliban Afghan in Doha’, a name approved by the US and the Qataris.

The next phase of the negotiations centres on a possible prisoner exchange, whereby five Afghan prisoners from Guantánamo Bay will be released and captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahl will be returned by the Taliban.

This seems likely as the US appears to have made a strategic decision to accommodate the Taliban. Pakistani journalist Syed Talat Hussain points to a crucial turning point: the US has now accepted the Haqqani network, previously reviled, as a legitimate negotiating partner.

Public demand

It’s not clear how far the negotiations will proceed. It is clear, however, that there has been considerable and consistent public demand for a negotiated solution to the war.

In September 2007, a Canadian Broadcasting Company poll in Afghanistan found that 74% of Afghans supported negotiations between the Karzai administration and the Taliban, and 54% wanted a coalition government. (PN 2491)

A series of polls by the BBC and other international broadcasters found that, despite broad hostility to the group, a growing majority of Afghans favoured negotiations with the Taliban: 60 per cent in 2007; 64 per cent in January 2009; 65 per cent in December 2009; and 73% in November 2010.

In November 2010, 65 per cent of Afghans polled were willing to accept an agreement between the central government and the Taliban, but only 37 per cent were willing to hand them control over any provinces.

Compromise

One key issue is to what extent the Taliban are willing and able to make compromises. As far back as 2008, we noted that British intelligence was supporting a back-channel Saudi-led peace process in which the Taliban had submitted 11 conditions for ending the war, including demands to be allowed to run key ministries and a programmed withdrawal of western troops. (PN 2503)

In January 2011, the Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak stated that a ‘cultural change’ in the insurgent leadership meant the Taliban were ‘no more opposing girls’ education’.

Whatever the solidity of this commitment, the Taliban leadership is far from monolithic, with two main power centres, and their control over their footsoldiers on the issue of schools has been limited, as a Afghan Analysts Network report concluded in June.

Milan Rai is a PN co-editor. Members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers will be Skyping live to PN Summer Camp (25-29 July).

Topics: Afghanistan