There’s a straight line that can be drawn from (a) the Obama administration’s announcement today  that it is shifting its national security focus from Iran and Afghanistan to the Pacific and (b) the imminent opening of a Taliban office in Qatar for peace talks.
There’s no doubt that the White House wants to draw down forces in Afghanistan and end that ridiculously unproductive war by 2014, perhaps not soon enough for anti-war activists, much as the war in Iraq slowed down and then ended between 2008 and 2011.
So the talks with the Taliban are a very good and important start. Not that the Taliban has changed its ugly spots: it’s still the same ultra-reactionary, brutal collection of thugs and misogynists that it’s always been. Incorporating them into a rebalanced Kabul government won’t be pretty, but then nothing in Afghanistan—which has been devastated by three decades of war and brutality—is pretty. Just as the reactionary, right-leaning American Deep South drags US politics to the right, an Afghan regime that includes some Taliban representation, in a largely federalized, decentralized system, will be even worse than the current one.
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the meaning of the US initiative toward the Taliban.
On the United States side, the military doesn’t want to abandon the fight, and no doubt many of the generals would love to carry the war into Pakistan, too, but President Obama has given them their chance, and they’ve failed. In 2009, in agreeing to the escalation of the war (twice), Obama gave the generals enough rope to hang themselves, and so they have. Now it’s time for the adults, i.e., the diplomats, to take over. But under pressure from Republican hawks, it’s not a safe bet that Obama can sell a deal with the Taliban to the American people, even though polls show that a substantial majority of Americans want to end the war.
On the Taliban side, the problem is that the Taliban is a complex organism with many moving parts, and on top of that Pakistan—which hosts the Taliban and its allies, and exerts what amounts to a controlling influence—holds all the high cards.
Both the Times and the Post have editorials today identically called “Talking with the Taliban.”
The Post version  usefully notes that talks with the Taliban might be aimed at “the creation of ceasefire zones,” which is indeed a good idea, but the Post stupidly opposes making any concessions to the Taliban, such as the apparently imminent release of some Taliban captives at Guantánamo. (These men, by the way, are horrific thugs responsible for the massacre of thousands of Afghan Shiites during the Taliban era, and so not good guys.) The Post wants the United States to resist a deal with the Taliban until guarantees for Afghanistan’s democracy and women’s rights can be secured, but that might be a bridge too far as US troops leave.
The Times, too, notes the ceasefire idea : “There is also talk from Americans of identifying some ceasefire zones where the Taliban’s interest in stopping the fighting could be tested.”
Is Pakistan on board? Who knows? Can the weak and divided Kabul government survive a peace process with the Taliban that is opposed by the old Northern Alliance and its allies? Who knows? Will Obama talk seriously with the Taliban, or simply demand that they lay down their arms? Who knows? And will the Taliban fracture, and will its leaders be able to order a cease-fire that is obeyed by its forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan? Right. Who knows? It’s still good news, and it could be a major turning point in the decade-old war.