A Window of Opportunity in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s weekend release of several Taliban prisoners is a clear indication that insurgents and their Pakistani military supporters are ready for talks. The Haqqani network announced last week that it is willing to participate in peace talks under Afghan Taliban leadership. The Obama administration should capitalize on these developments and press for a negotiated end to the war.

Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners came in response to a three-day visit to Islamabad by the Afghan High Peace Council, the body created in 2010 by the Kabul government to oversee peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States could encourage the process by following Pakistan’s lead and acting on the proposed transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar. Turning over the handful of Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo would further boost prospects for peace talks.

The administration says that the local parties—the Kabul government, the insurgents, and Pakistan—must take the lead in negotiating a peace agreement, but U.S. leadership is indispensable for achieving progress. Some in Congress and the administration are wary of negotiating with the Taliban for fear of conferring legitimacy on the insurgents. Women in Afghanistan worry that negotiations will empower those who want to turn back the clock on the human rights and development gains of the past decade. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not an argument for opposing diplomacy. The alternative—continued armed conflict and perhaps civil war—will mean further human losses and will jeopardize and ultimately undermine the prospects for development and human rights.  Renewed civil war would be a damning verdict on a costly decade of U.S. intervention.

Opinion polls show that Afghans overwhelmingly oppose a return to Taliban rule. The best guarantee against a Taliban takeover is the inclusion of the Afghan people in a peace process. The Afghan Women’s Network and other civil society groups have called for an inclusive process that provides a role for all significant sectors of Afghan society. Women in particular should be guaranteed a seat at the table. Research shows that peace agreements in which civil society groups have an active role in monitoring and implementation the terms of a settlement are more likely to succeed.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces will be crucial to the prospects for successful negotiations. The Pentagon is pressing for a security agreement with the Kabul government that reportedly allows for the long-term presence of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops. That could be a deal-killer, since insurgents have insisted that U.S. forces leave. Maintaining a limited number of non-combat troops during the initial transition period may be appropriate—as security assurance for the Kabul regime, and as bargaining leverage to gain Taliban cooperation—but Washington must be willing to accept an agreement that includes complete military withdrawal. We should also be prepared to support the deployment of a Muslim-led interim security force to monitor and implement a peace agreement if the local parties request it.

Many obstacles stand in the way of a negotiated settlement. Even if formal talks begin soon, the process is likely to take many months, perhaps years. All the more reason to get started. The stage is being set, and the time to act is now. President Obama should use some of the political capital from his impressive election victory to exercise leadership for long-term peace.

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