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Taliban talks not likely to effect an honorable U.S. exit from Afghanistan

By Trudy Rubin , The Philadelphia Inquirer –

Now that U.S. troops have left Iraq, the administration is seeking to negotiate an end to the Afghan war.

So there was some excitement last week when an Afghan Taliban spokesman announced that the group would open a political office in the Arab Gulf state of Qatar, dropping its long-held objections to peace talks. This move comes after months of secret efforts by the Obama administration.

Yet, anyone who believes that talks with the Taliban will lead to an honorable exit is deluding himself.

I sympathize with President Obama’s desire to end the second messed-up conflict he inherited from the Bush team. President George W. Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when he dropped the focus on fixing postwar Afghanistan in favor of invading Iraq. This enabled a Taliban comeback.

Ten years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the United States still has 100,000 troops fighting it in Afghanistan; the bulk of those troops are supposed to be withdrawn by 2014. Despite some U.S. military gains, however, there’s broad agreement on three harsh facts: First, the Taliban can’t be militarily defeated so long as the fighters have safe havens across the border in Pakistan; second, the Pakistanis won’t close down those havens; and third, the weak Afghan government and army will probably lose control of much of the country once U.S. troops leave.

Given these facts, some will say we should just walk away. In that case, Afghanistan would likely collapse into civil war, and serve again as a haven for terrorist groups that want to strike at the West. Even worse (and contrary to the delusions of Pakistan’s military), Afghanistan may become a base from which radical Islamists can seek control of the nuclear-armed Pakistani state.

So, the administration has little choice but to explore a peace deal.

The issue is not whether to talk, but how these talks are to be conducted, and what their real goals are. Will they serve the interests of Afghans and Afghan peace? Or will they merely provide cover for an American exit, irrespective of what follows — like the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that allowed U.S. troops to quit South Vietnam but led to a North Vietnamese takeover by 1975?

It’s not clear yet what the Qatar office will lead to, but let me suggest five criteria by which these proceedings can be judged:

One: Will talks hand the Taliban the upper hand from the start? As a quid pro quo for mere willingness to talk, the Taliban wants U.S. confidence-building measures, such as the release of some of its members from the Guantanamo Bay prison. Such a one-sided gesture would send the wrong signal from the get-go. Any U.S. gestures should be matched by the other side.

Two: Who will speak for the Afghans? The Afghan government wasn’t included in the secret talks that led to the Qatar office, and its chief peace negotiator was recently killed by a Taliban faction. The Taliban calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and pretends to be the country’s true government; the fighters want to deal only with the Americans. Washington can’t afford to play the Taliban’s game, which presumes the West will hand the fighters the country in return for a safe withdrawal. The Karzai government — no matter how inept — must head the talks, along with representatives of the Afghan opposition and women.

Three: Who will speak for the Taliban? The Taliban faction contemplating talks is based in Quetta, Pakistan, and is led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed cleric who gave shelter to Osama bin Laden. Yet the talks don’t include the most dangerous Taliban faction, the Haqqani network, which is linked with al-Qaida. Nor is it clear that Omar can control many midlevel Taliban commanders inside Afghanistan. So what can he deliver, even if he is serious about talks?

Four: How will the Pakistanis behave? Most Taliban leaders and their families live in Pakistan, which gives Pakistan’s intelligence agencies a huge say in their behavior. Yet Pakistan’s quid pro quo for encouraging peace is a nonstarter: It wants to ban its archenemy, India, from any role in Afghanistan’s future, and it wants to ensure that its Taliban allies control much of the country. If Pakistan doesn’t moderate these goals, any peace talks are dead on arrival.

Five: What are U.S. and Afghan red lines for these talks? If the Qatar talks become a new version of the Paris peace talks, there will be few red lines. Both sides may agree to create temporary cease-fire zones that collapse after U.S. troops leave. If the talks are truly about peace, then U.S.-Afghan red lines will require the Taliban to enter the government as a political, not military, force and to lay down its arms.

As you can see, the odds against negotiating progress are staggering. And I haven’t even mentioned the probability that Afghan’s western neighbor, Iran, will act as a spoiler.

So one can only wish the Obama team luck as it tries to test the Taliban’s true intentions. The most important question of all is whether the group has been weakened enough by U.S. forces to seek a compromise solution. If not, these talks are surely destined to fail.

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