If this sounds wildly improbable, it is. Even if such agreements were signed, trust would be a major problem.
As the United States and coalition forces begin to draw down troops from Afghanistan, few people would deny that a meaningful peace agreement between the Taliban and the government of President Hamid Karzai would give the world a greater peace of mind.
But the word "meaningful" is loaded with implications. Unfortunately, the already announced troop withdrawals make it much more difficult to achieve such a deal. Taliban leaders, chafing at their loss of power in Afghanistan, know they simply have to wait a bit for their chance to regain leadership.
One of the worst kept secrets in Washington these days is that the Obama administration is engaging in secret talks with Taliban leaders in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those preliminary negotiations were said to be at a crucial stage earlier this week, according to senior U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters. Reportedly, the United States was considering releasing some detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a similar show of good faith from the Taliban, such as a denunciation of terrorism. The administration seemed to be laying the groundwork for such a move when Vice President Joe Biden this week told Newsweek the Taliban is not an enemy.
Biden's point was that the United States went to war in Afghanistan against al-Qaida. If the United States could ensure a stable Afghanistan after its departure — one that would not harbor terrorists the way the Taliban did when it ran the country — this would be in the nation's best interests.
There are a number of problems with this reasoning, however. The Taliban harbored al-Qaida because of its sympathetic ideological bent. When it ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban imposed stern moral codes that denied women basic human rights and punished men for such crimes as shaving facial hair. The Taliban may be persuaded to sever its affiliation with al-Qaida, but there is little reason to believe it would renounce its repressive core beliefs. A negotiated peace may jeopardize the hard-won progress toward some form of gender equality in Afghanistan.
A meaningful peace accord would have to include assurances from the Taliban that it would not only participate in, but respect the democratic process. This means not trying to manipulate elections and accepting results even if it loses. Such a pact would have to include an agreement to respect basic human rights for both men and women and to subordinate the Taliban's own interpretations of Islamic law. The Afghan government would have to agree to allow Taliban representation and to include Taliban members in police and military forces.
If this sounds wildly improbable, it is. Even if such agreements were signed, trust would be a major problem. Taliban leaders may not have the ability to rein in their more radical adherents. On the other hand, it is clear that U.S. forces have no intention any longer of trying to win an unconditional surrender from its enemies in the region.
The worry is not so much that the administration is seeking to negotiate with the Taliban. It is that it might accept something less than meaningful as a victory. Sticking to an announced withdrawal timetable doesn't help.