Grand hopes for a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan have not died, but they have dimmed considerably.
The goal today, according to experts, is much narrower in scope -- keep lines of communication open for now, with an eye toward helping the Afghan government work out a deal with the Taliban after foreign troops exit the country.
Kabul is primarily concentrating on preparing the ground for 2014, says Marvin Weinbaum, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. State Department, when a presidential election is expected to be held and NATO forces are to hand over security operations to the Afghan government.
Based on his impressions during recent travels to Afghanistan, Weinbaum says that Afghan and Western officials view a political settlement with the Taliban as something that is years down the road.
"If the [Afghan] election leaves us with a president who is at least acceptable to the major factions and then [the Afghan authorities] are able to sustain the country until 2017 or so, then that represents the best hope there is for a political solution," Weinbaum says.
Contacts and discussions with the Taliban are now focused on setting up future negotiations, says Weinbaum, a regional specialist at Washington's Middle East Institute think tank.
"What is absent here is any discussion about the substance. All of this discussion now which is going on is all facilitation. How can we bring the two together?" Weinbaum says. "And there is no attention being given to whether there are the ingredients for reaching any kind of mutual accommodation over the next two years."
Does The Taliban Want To Talk?
The idea of a political reconciliation with the Taliban gained traction soon after U.S. President Barack Obama announced a major surge of troops in 2009. In 2010, international donors pledged some $140 million to help reintegrate rebel foot soldiers into society. Late that year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed dozens of notable Afghans to a High Peace Council to entice more moderate Taliban leaders to drop their weapons and work with the government.
The next year saw a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity to get the Taliban on board. Some former Taliban leaders were removed from the UN sanctions list and the insurgents were encouraged to establish a contact office in the Middle East. But the September 2011 assassination of High Peace Council Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani dealt a blow to the process.
Hopes were revived when the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar in January. However, the group subsequently announced in May that it was suspending talks with Washington. The Taliban accused Washington of changing its position and failing to swap five Taliban Guantanamo inmates in exchange for the only U.S. soldier the group holds.
According to Michael Semple, a former UN and EU diplomat, the Taliban is questioning the benefits of negotiations. Based on his interviews with current and former Taliban leaders, Semple says that hard-liners who want to fight on appear to be winning out over those who favor a peace settlement.
"Some of them clearly have argued that if they fight on, they will be able to see the Americans out of the country; they will find themselves in a militarily strengthened position in 2014; and they will be in a position to make a bid for power," Semple says. "Those in the movement who believe that they are going to gain a military advantage, they have the upper hand."
Dawood Muradian, head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, says that the Taliban is clearly on the wane, but there will be no room for a peace deal until it accepts the Afghan Constitution.
"The Afghan government and the Afghan political class will continue to be embracing, to be inviting anyone who wants to join the political process," Muradian says, pointing to a "cautious optimism that we have entered a post-Taliban era. The Taliban no longer present a strategic threat to Afghanistan. The Taliban have been defeated politically, morally, and also in many aspects, they have been defeated militarily."
Francesc Vendrell, former representative for the EU and UN in Afghanistan, notes that a third party could play a major role in a peace deal being struck between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But the United States, which had assumed the role, will be challenged by Kabul's insistence on leading the peace process and also by the influence of regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan.
"Without the assistance of a facilitator or mediator, its hard to see [this process taking shape] -- it might take longer. Or, you would need a very active [direct] negotiations process," Vendrell says.