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Peace Talks Could Be Win-Win For Afghan Government, Taliban

Afghan public opinion is turning against international forces

Afghan public opinion is turning against international forces

There has been an inordinate amount of media speculation about a meeting that purportedly took place at the end of last month in Saudi Arabia involving representatives of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

While some have denied the talks ever took place and others say they're a "nonstarter," they could offer a way forward for Afghanistan. With public dissatisfaction with both the Taliban and the Afghan government on the rise, peace talks could provide a welcome opportunity for both sides.

For some time now, polls and other research have indicated that Afghans are tired of living in a protracted state of armed conflict and insecurity.

There have also been credible signs of similar attitudes within the Taliban -- among both foot soldiers and pragmatists in the group's leadership.

Mullah Mohammad Omar's recent call for an end to attacks on schools, book-burning, and dismemberment -- as well as a marked decrease in suicide attacks targeting civilians -- would seem to indicate the Taliban leadership is aware that public opinion is turning against it.

At the same time, a recent increase in coalition and NATO air strikes that have led to civilian causalities is increasingly hard to dismiss as inevitable "collateral damage." Afghan public opinion is rapidly turning against international forces and, by extension, the Afghan government.

President Hamid Karzai's administration is particularly in need of a boost. His government has been weakened by allegations of corruption and charges that senior officials are involved in the narcotics trade. It faces opposition fronts that seek to undermine not just the government but the country's entire political system.

Taliban's Moderate Wing

Likewise, moderate elements within the Taliban -- those who question the benefits of maintaining the group's rigid position -- could strengthen their hand by broadening support within the movement for a political settlement.

The problem is that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban appear to hold much moral authority in the eyes of the Afghan people. In order for talks to proceed, much less succeed, such authority is desperately needed. But Karzai's corrupt and ineffective administration, combined with civilian casualties that can be blamed on the coalition, has stripped the government and its Western allies of this key instrument.

On the other hand, the cruel history of the Taliban and the movement's dogmatic ideology undermine its position as well.

That's why Saudi Arabia's involvement is so important. For many Muslims, Saudi Arabia symbolizes the seat of moral authority. Moreover, Riyadh has bankrolled the Taliban for decades and has considerable influence within the movement, as well as in Pakistan. While the Saudis might well seek to use Afghanistan to check Iran's growing influence in the region, skillful Afghan negotiators could still benefit from Riyadh's role in brokering peace.

That said, success ultimately depends on what comes next. First, a clear framework for negotiations must be established. In order for that to happen, the Karzai government must itself reach consensus and then reach out to opposition political parties and to foreign allies.

Of course, that framework cannot include compromises regarding the basic tenets of the country's newly democratic system or its nearly five-year-old constitution. It must also be admitted that power-sharing agreements involving coalition governments have never worked in Afghanistan; such a course might lead to a quick fix, but it would quickly run aground.

In addition, the international community -- led by the United States -- must establish a clear, coherent, consistent, and coordinated course of action in Afghanistan that instills hope in the country's long-term future.

And, finally, Afghans on both sides of the conflict must stop allowing themselves to be swayed by demagoguery. They must develop a solid understanding of the impact that continued warfare has on their daily lives, as well as an awareness of the dividends of peace. In the process, the Afghan people will need to forge a consensus on the compromises that are required of them. That process might be getting under way -- and that is the most hopeful sign of all.

Helena Malikyar is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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