By now pretty much everyone agrees that the war in Afghanistan
won’t end unless somebody can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Even the Americans have acknowledged the need for peace talks. Obama Administration officials routinely note
that the war cannot be won by military means alone.
And even though the Taliban leadership has never said the same thing, there is some evidence out there to suggest that there are people in its ranks – including many of those doing the actual fighting – who would be happy to discuss the idea.
All this is much easier said than done, of course. For one thing, Taliban suicide bombers are still blowing people up in shopping malls. Nor do many Afghans need to be reminded about the horrors of Taliban rule. As for the Americans, they remember all too well that the man who nearly blew up a car bomb in the middle of New York last spring claimed to have received training, by his own admission in a federal court, in a Taliban camp in Waziristan.
For their part, Taliban leaders are under constant threat by U.S. drones in their so-called “safe havens” in the tribal areas of Pakistan – which only makes sense, since the U.S. government has officially designated their group as a terrorist organization. It should come as no surprise that those Taliban who have expressed an opinion on the issue often say that that labeling has to be lifted (along with the raft of sanctions that goes with it) before they enter any talks.
These are all pretty tough nuts to crack. But if those concerned want to start tackling them, there has to be someone that can speak with authority on the Taliban’s behalf. That could be a tall order for a shadowy movement that has multiple factions and no clear leaders. That amorphousness has already had consequences. It played a big role in last year’s farcical episode involving a man who claimed to be a high-ranking Taliban negotiator with power for negotiations but turned out to be an impostor instead.
One way to start might be by setting up a representative office in a third country, far from the site of the fighting, where Taliban emissaries could be guaranteed a certain degree of personal security. Over the past few weeks one particular candidate has emerged, and that is Turkey. Several high-ranking Afghan officials, up to and including President Hamid Karzai, have been promoting the idea – most recently in an interview with RFE/RL. The Turks have responded with statements expressing their willingness to support Kabul’s work to “coordinate Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts.”
Ankara’s vows in this respect, it should be said, sound a great deal more credible than Islamabad’s. It’s hard to know for sure, but many experts believe that at least one earlier attempt to put out peace feelers to the Taliban was scotched by the Pakistanis when they arrested a leading Taliban member on their territory who was said to be exploring room for negotiations. Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service has many reasons for wanting to thwart a deal.
So the idea of shifting the effort to Turkey offers certain advantages. Turkey, of course, is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and right now it’s governed by an Islamist party that hasn’t been shy about building its relations with countries, like Iran and Syria, that aren’t regarded as friends by the West. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, a professor at the International Relations Department of Ghazi University in Ankara, points out that Turkey has already hosted visits by representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas. So why not the Taliban, too?
Yet Ankara also has a long history of close relations with Washington. Turkey is a leading member of NATO, and as such it maintains a small contingent of non-combatant troops within the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration’s new AfPak special envoy, Marc Grossman, once served as an ambassador to Turkey.
It is still early days. There’s no evidence that anyone from the Taliban side has actually taken up the idea yet, and there are no specific indications that talks to this effect are under way. But it is very hard to imagine how serious peace talks over Afghanistan can ever happen unless something like this happens first.