Momentum is building on peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
Not long ago, I reported on General Petraeus’s comments that the Taliban was signaling an interest in talking peace with President Karzai’s government. It was also reported that not only had talks gotten started, but that the talks involved senior Taliban representatives who could speak for the Quetta Shura Taliban, the top leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan. And it was reported that sometime last summer, the Obama administration shifted policy, abandoning its previous view that talks with the Taliban would be useless until the insurgents were pushed to the brink of military defeat, and that now the White House is ready to fully engage in search of a political settlement.
Today, it’s widely reported (in the Post, the Times, RFE/RL, and many other outlets) that the movement of Taliban leaders from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back was facilitated by the United States, NATO, and ISAF. At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates said that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to support Karzai’s plan to reconcile with the Taliban.
According to AP, the head of the newly appointed High Peace Council in Afghanistan, former president Burnahuddin Rabbani—no softie when it comes to the Taliban—said that he's "convinced that the Taliban are ready to negotiate peace."
That’s a direct shift from the administration’s refusal to support Karzai’s peace talks proposals since 2009, especially his January 2010 suggestion in London, which caught US officials off guard and led some, including Richard (“Don’t call me Dick!") Holbrooke to fulminate against the idea. Specifically, Holbrooke denounced the idea of taking top Taliban leaders off the UN blacklist, something that many Taliban officials and supporters of peace talks believe is critical to facilitate talks.
Until recently, the United States supported only “reintegration,” that is, the inclusion of low-level Taliban defectors into Afghan society. But it opposed “reconciliation,” meaning full-on peace talks with the Taliban organization. That seems to be changing.
Until now, the United States has demanded that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution, renounce violence, and reject Al Qaeda. The Taliban, for its part, has one central condition: the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the country. The July 2011 deadline that President Obama has set for the start of an American withdrawal could easily serve as a starting point for a deal with the Taliban over an American departure, and Taliban leaders have said so.
Despite the postive noises from Gates and Clinton, it's unlikely that either is behind the shift in American policy. (Indeed, it's good that Gates will be leaving the administration soon, since his appointment was probably the single worst that Obama made on after being elected.) If anyone is behind the policy change, it's Obama himself, now fortified by Tom Donilon, the new national security adviser, who is widely known to be a skeptic of the war. In fact, according to Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, Gates said that if Donilon ever became national security adviser it would be a "disaster." (Goodbye, Mr. Gates!) The other leading skeptic in the White House is Vice President Biden, and Donilon's wife is a senior official on Biden's staff.