Despite receiving little attention in the lengthy written testimony (.pdf) presented to the Senate and House intelligence committees’ recent hearings on threats to the United States, the question of the viability of reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban was raised repeatedly in the discusions at the two public sessions. Many in Congress are rightly concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and any nascent peace process. So it is important to understand the specific risks involved in negotiating with the Taliban before Congress’ last annual hearing on worldwide threats to national security takes place Thursday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For the past year, Taliban representatives have been holding secret meetings with German and American officials in Europe and Qatar to engage in “talks about talks.” The discussions reportedly began in earnest when the Obama administration relaxed its prerequisites for any dialogue at the beginning of last year. U.S. officials had previously insisted that the Taliban end its ties with al-Qaida, renounce violence and accept Afghanistan’s constitution as a requirement to begin any talks. They now accept that these steps can be taken at the end of the negotiations as part of a formal peace agreement.
The administration has increasingly seen such a negotiated peace agreement as an essential complement to intensified NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Despite the surge in troops and other resources that have entered Afghanistan over the past two years, NATO forces and their Afghan allies acknowledge that they cannot plausibly hope to militarily defeat the Taliban insurgency. Although engaging in talks will enhance the movement’s legitimacy, this might be an acceptable concession if it accelerates actual negotiations and does not simply allow the Taliban to run out the clock until NATO withdraws most of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, as planned.