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The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar prompted fresh optimism over the prospect of a political settlement being reached that could end the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Afghan governments hoped that the insurgent group would agree to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. The Taliban, however, clearly had a different agenda, using the occasion as a publicity stunt to present itself as an alternative government and gain international credibility. And its approach sent shockwaves across Afghanistan.
At the inauguration ceremony in Doha, Taliban representatives reportedly played their official anthem, hoisted their white flag and placed an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” nameplate outside their embassy-like building. Feeling betrayed by the U.S. and Qatari governments, Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost immediately announced he was boycotting the talks and suspended planned negotiations with Washington over a bilateral security agreement that lays out the legal framework for post-2014 American military presence in Afghanistan. Since then, the peace talks have been placed on hold.
As a result, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s conciliatory phone conversations with President Karzai, and Presidents Obama and Karzai on Tuesday “reaffirming” their support for talks with the Taliban, any negotiations are unlikely to produce something tangible.
This should not come as a surprise. In recent years, both the Karzai and Obama administrations have aggressively tried to engage the Taliban diplomatically to end the war, but the militant group has simply responded by stepping up violence. President Karzai’s unilateral concessions – such as freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners as a “gesture of goodwill” and alleged promising of senior government positions to Taliban leaders – have failed to encourage the militants to make peace. Indeed, hours after opening the Qatar office, the Taliban killed four American service members near the Bagram Air Base. And on Tuesday, a group of Taliban gunmen launched a brazen attack on the Presidential Palace and a nearby CIA office in Kabul.
All this suggests that with most foreign troops set to leave Afghanistan within the next 18 months, the Taliban now has even less incentive to lay down arms and join the peace process. So why is it negotiating now? There are a number of reasons.
First, if direct talks take place, the Taliban is expected to push for the release of five senior operatives held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a captive American soldier. The insurgents understand that President Obama is intent on closing the controversial prison and hope to free their comrades without having to offer substantial concessions in return.
Second, the Taliban’s current strategy appears to be to wait until the coalition forces leave next year and then try to topple the Kabul government. Until then, it will continue suicide attacks in Kabul and other populated areas to project power and undermine the Afghan government. And by simply making vague promises, the Taliban is no doubt trying to persuade Washington to speed up troop withdrawal and decide against keeping any residual forces in the country after 2014.
Third, the Qatar office helps the Taliban bolster its international credibility and gives its members more freedom of action. The Taliban has already exploited diplomacy to try to alter its image from a terrorist group into an internationally recognized armed opposition movement. Once blacklisted by the United Nations and confined to hideouts in Pakistan, many Taliban leaders now freely travel from the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Islamabad to Middle Eastern nations, including Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, a delegation of senior Taliban members flew from Qatar to Iran on an official visit, which the Taliban website hailed as “a diplomatic coup d’état against the Kabul government.” Taliban representatives also use the office as an operational headquarters to raise funds in the Gulf region; establish ties with other radical groups; and spread their propaganda through the international media. Afghan officials say the militant group also plans to open offices in other regional countries.
It is therefore clear that Washington and Kabul should be extremely cautious about peace talks and wary of the Taliban’s motives. A political solution to end the Afghan war is desirable, but a short-sighted deal with the insurgents could undo the hard-won gains of the past decade and serve as a recipe for another civil war in the country. Unless the Taliban halts violence and enters into a meaningful negotiation with the Afghan government, Washington should ask the Qatari government to close its office immediately and expel its members.
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