A local boy looks at US Army soldiers as they conduct a morning patrol through the village of Kowall in Arghandab District on July 11, 2010. (Reuters/Bob Strong)

What’s going on with the off-again, on-again talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar? To start with, it isn’t clear what the United States wants from the talks, the Taliban is overplaying its hand, and Hamid Karzai is getting in the way.

If there is going to be a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan unlikely as that may be, it will come when the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan all agree on a rebalancing of the government in Kabul, probably with a new constitution and probably either including the Taliban in the new regime or giving the Taliban effective control of parts of southern Afghanistan in some sort of federal system.

That won’t make many people happy. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and a noted opponent of both Pakistan’s military and Pakistan’s Islamists, wrote an op-ed for  The New York Times on June 27 warning the United States not to commit the “blunder” of talking to the Taliban:

Unlike most states or political groups, the Taliban aren’t amenable to a pragmatic deal. They are a movement with an extreme ideology and will not compromise easily on their deeply held beliefs.

Haqqani may be right. The Taliban leadership are indeed fanatics, and in recent years—as their ability to mount any sort of ground offensive has faltered—they’ve slaughtered thousands of Afghan civilians in terror bombings. But where Haqqani may be wrong is that the Taliban has from the beginning been a cats’-paw for Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, and if Pakistan exerts the sort of pressure that it can bring to bear on Mullah Omar, the Quetta Shura leadership, and the so-called Haqqani group—no relation to Ambassador Haqqani—then it’s possible that the Taliban will be pragmatic enough to strike a deal. At the very least, the Taliban can make a clean break with Al Qaeda and renounce terrorism.

As Reuters reports:

Pakistan’s powerful military has played a central role in convincing Afghanistan’s Taliban rebels to hold talks with the United States, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, a shift from widely held views in Washington that it was obstructing peace in the region.

According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune, a project of the International Herald Tribune, “months-long painstaking and secret negotiations involving Islamabad and Washington” led to the opening for talks in Qatar. The newspaper says that the goal of the talks is a new government in Afghanistan:

The ultimate aim of [the diplomacy] is for all stakeholders in Afghanistan to share power through an inclusive election process under a possibly modified Afghanistan constitution.

The article quotes a Pakistan military official:

“The Americans had three solutions for the Taliban problem. First, the Alpha solution, was to beat them into submission and retard their capacity to fight permanently. This failed. The Bravo solution was to fight them hard through a troop surge and force them to accept Afghanistan’s new realities like the present-day Afghan constitution and the leadership of President Karzai. That too did not work. The third, the Charlie solution, was more of a compulsion. Accept Taliban as a legitimate power in Afghanistan, talk to them, accommodate their main demands even it meant abandoning assets like Karzai. I think you are looking at the Charlie solution being played out.”

The Express Tribune says that the diplomacy was carried out especially between Secretary of State John Kerry and the man who really runs Pakistan, General Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of staff of Pakistan’s army and former head of the ISI.

Kerry and Kayani finalized the agreement to get talks going in Qatar during a meeting in Brussels in April, according to Reuters.

The Express Tribune notes that Karzai, whose term as president of Afghanistan ends in 2014, has been scrambling to block the US-Taliban talks—talks, obviously, backed by Pakistan—and insert himself into the process. But Karzai is less and less part of the American calculation anymore. Even to the members of his own Peace Council, Karzai is “variously described as ‘unstable’, ‘a threat to Afghan peace’ and even as a ‘poisonous roadblock,’” says the Express Tribune, adding, “Unfortunately for Karzai, Washington increasingly finds itself in agreement with these assessments.”

Immediately after the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, Karzai lashed out against the talks, demanding that the process stop unless he himself were in the middle of it. Gingerly, Kerry managed to persuade the Taliban, presumably through Qatar and Pakistan, to lower the profile of its “embassy” and to soothe Karzai’s ruffled feathers. According to The New York Times, “it was the insurgents’ presentation of themselves as a government that angered Afghan officials, and they clearly felt they were being sidelined in the peace process.”

Indeed, the Afghan government is being sidelined—having been propped up by the United States since 2001, with a haphazard military and security forces that can’t sustain themselves. It’s long been obvious that a political accommodation with the Taliban is necessary. If it isn’t achieved, then either the United States will have to stay engaged in Afghanistan for another ten years or more, continuing to prop up a regime that can’t last, or Afghanistan will plunge into an intensified civil war. In such a war, it isn’t clear if the Taliban can retake Kabul. Far more likely, it will be a war without end, with the Pakistan-backed Taliban establishing itself in the south and east as India-backed forces control the north and Iran-backed forces control the west.

James Dobbins, President Obama’s envoy on the Afghanistan-Pakistan tangle—the post formerly held by the late Richard Holbrooke—has been shuttling around the region, lately visiting Pakistan to discuss, no doubt, the Taliban’s overreaching. Dobbins noted that he was outraged (not exactly diplomatic language) about the Taliban’s decision to set up a virtual embassy in Qatar, flying the Taliban flag and adorned with a plaque identifying the office as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s name for its former state.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Simbal Khan says that the United States can’t let Karzai obstruct the peace talks:

Nobody expects quick progress with regard to the talks, but with tentative confidence building measures such as prisoner exchanges, the United States and the Taliban can set the stage for a comprehensive peace process amongst the Afghans themselves. There is also a growing constituency within Afghanistan that supports a political resolution to the conflict. If the Karzai government persists in standing against the tide, his inner circle and presidential nominee will likely be marginalized in the next election. As far as the joint U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement is concerned, it is an issue that can be resolved after the new president is sworn in. The U.S. must not allow itself to be blackmailed over the issue by an outgoing president with a narrow support base.

Khan adds:

The next few days and weeks will likely show how far Karzai is willing to go in his opposition to direct U.S.-Taliban talks. Most of the Afghan government’s concerns regarding protocol irregularities have been addressed. The Taliban have been persuaded to remove the flag and the objectionable plaque. Both Karzai and Obama have indicated that the Doha talks will now go on, and will not be derailed in the face of recent Taliban attacks. Obama admitted in his comments last Thursday that he had anticipated difficulties during the reconciliation process, but difficulties related to Karzai’s own narrow political calibrations must not distract U.S. policymakers from the course that leads towards peace.

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