As the United States accelerates the withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan, continued violence makes the transfer of military gains to Afghan forces by 2014 an increasingly fraught prospect. Regular assassinations of civilians and the increased use of dumb, pressure-plate-operated roadside bombs -- more likely to hit a minibus than an armoured personnel carrier -- mean that the number of civilian dead and injured will likely remain a heavy burden on Afghan society long after coalition troops are withdrawn. And while the worst predictions of a full-blown civil war are unlikely to prove correct, there is little doubt that more blood will flow before Afghanistan begins to stabilize. Ultimately, there can be no durable peace without a political resolution to the conflict -- and that means dealing with the Taliban.
The big question mark, however, is whether they are truly interested in a political process. Since their emergence in the 1990s, the Taliban's traditions and experience overwhelmingly suggest a preference for the black and white of violent action over the nuance of political negotiation. There is also plenty of reason to suppose the Taliban may just wait until coalition combat troops leave Afghanistan in the hands of an ill-equipped and less capable national force and then resume their violent campaign. Still, there are signs that certain factions within the Taliban may have learned from their past mistakes and adopted a more conciliatory approach. Might this faction win out and successfully negotiate a political deal with the U.S. and Afghan governments?
So far, the signals have been mixed. In February, it seemed that everything was set for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar and begin serious talks with the United States. At issue would be a peaceful transition to a constitutionally based and al Qaeda-free Afghanistan, with neither side declaring victory nor acknowledging defeat. The tireless Tayyeb Agha, a close confidant of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, appeared to have established himself as a trusted interlocutor for both sides, and small signs of optimism began to show.
But the Taliban suspended the dialogue in March, when the United States failed to release two of five named Taliban prisoners held in the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Their release had been planned as a sign of intent by the United States that would have been matched by the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who turned up in Taliban hands in June 2009 and remains the only U.S. soldier in their custody. Various considerations delayed the execution of this plan, including domestic opposition in the United States, internal tensions in the Taliban, the Afghan government's suspicion of the process, Pakistan's reluctance to endorse Qatar as the site for further negotiations, and Qatar's own desire for clarity about its proposed role.
Despite these complicating factors, something approximating this deal might well go forward in the future and, indeed, it seems that all key players are to some extent waiting on the others to make the necessary moves. Yet it is far from clear what will happen next, particularly because there are substantial asymmetries between the major parties' demands.