Taliban talks a ray of hope for Afghanistan?

All stakeholders in Afghanistan agree that talks are necessary, but each wants different things from them.


    When US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, they were in no mood to compromise. Back then, they said that they would wipe out the Taliban. A zero-tolerance policy unleashed a decade of bloody conflict in one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

    It was a country that had already been battered by the Russian invasion of 1979 and the long ensuing war, which left entire cities and much of the countryside in ruins.

    Years later, the US made the same mistake in Iraq, when it labelled all Baathists enemies. In the end, the US asked the very same Baathists to help consolidate their tenuous hold on that country.

    The realisation that the Afghan War was unwinnable and that more resources were required to tackle a resurgent Taliban who still enjoy support in key Pashtun provinces, coupled with the need to find a political solution, has prompted the need for flexibility.

    Although the idea came late, it did make sense to look for a more long-lasting political settlement to the conflict by opening official-level talks, even as the war rages on. The other option, in this case, is no talks and just war.

    Obstacles to peace

    Even so, neither side was willing to admit that contact had been made - that they were willing to talk to the "enemy". Eventually, through the efforts of other regional players, notably Qatar, a major breakthrough has now been made, and there is some room for cautious optimism.

    But there are obstacles, too.

    The Taliban want their key commanders being held at Guantanamo Bay to be released, in exchange for a lone US prisoner who is in their custody. They also want all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. The issue is further complicated by the Afghan Taliban's unwillingness to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Karzai himself, fearing a backlash from those in the erstwhile Northern Alliance who are now a part of the Afghan government, also quickly announced a boycott of the Doha talks.

    It is the US which requires both parties to be at the negotiating table, so that they can stick to their 2014 troop withdrawal date.

    The months ahead, meanwhile, will be testing ones for the fledgling Afghan National Army, which expected to bear the burden of the heavy fighting expected this summer.

    The Taliban seem to be showing flexibility on the issue of severing any links with al-Qaeda, and on not allowing Afghan soil to be used for attacks outside the country. Analysts say that most surviving al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan have already slipped out of the country, and are now in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

    Exit strategy

    With the 2014 deadline for withdrawal a little over a year away, the US is aware that it needed to prepare for its exit strategy from Afghanistan. It would need to create a plan for the steady flow of military hardware from the landlocked country, including billions of dollars' worth of heavy armour, artillery and other war supplies on a long journey to the Arabian Sea, from where ships would carry them.

    Behind the scenes, Pakistan has been facilitating the move towards talks with the Taliban. It, too, maintains that talks must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led in order to achieve a lasting solution.

    Between them, every stakeholder in Afghanistan wants the talks to go forward, but each has their own objectives for what they are meant to achieve. In the end, though, all agree that it is these talks that could provide some sort of ray of hope for a lasting political solution to the Afghan riddle.



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