Earlier this week, I talked to Salahuddin Rabbani, head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Rabbani was in Washington to brief administration officials on talks he had just held in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders. Rabbani had asked the Pakistanis to release four senior Taliban officials whom they had imprisoned, apparently for the crime of holding peace talks without Islamabad's approval. Security officials had released one of them, as well as nine lower-level figures. Afterwards, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistani's military chief of staff and ultimate authority on national security issues, had flown to Kabul to conduct further talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rabbani told me that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Pakistanis had decided to stop obstructing negotiations.
If this is as meaningful as Rabbani hopes, it would be very welcome news for President Barack Obama, who is ardently hoping to leave behind the messes he inherited in the Islamic world in order to get on with the forward-looking business of pivoting to Asia, promoting climate change, signing free-trade agreements, and so on. He has already completed Phase One of this act of strategic extrication by removing American troops from Iraq. Phase Two will be completed by the end of 2014, when American and NATO troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Obama and his team are now deciding just how quickly those troops should leave, and how many should be left behind in order to train and support Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. No matter what the outcome of that debate, Obama's hopes may rest on Pakistan's calculations -- and the Taliban's.
Karzai established the High Peace Council two years ago, with the goal of reaching out to current and former militant leaders. He appointed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former jihadi leader and president of Afghanistan, as its first chairman. In September 2011, at a time when elements of the Taliban had begun talking to to American envoys in Germany and Qatar, Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber, presumably dispatched by hard-line elements seeking to sabotage the nascent talks. This past April, Karzai chose Rabbani's 41-year-old son, Salahuddin, then serving as ambassador to Turkey, to replace his father. Salahuddin, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, Westernized figure, is new to this brutal game; when we met at his hotel in Washington, he asked if I was the same James Traub who had taught his class at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs in 2008. (I was.)
Rabbani and his colleagues have had informal contacts with a range of current and former Taliban figures, and he says that he is convinced that most want to stop fighting. "The reports we have are that the Taliban leadership is now discussing the logic of continuing the military campaign," he says. Once the United States and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement last May pledging a long-term U.S. role, including an ongoing military presence, Rabbani says, the Taliban concluded that they could no longer wait for the end of 2014 and then march on Kabul. Of course, that may be over-optimistic. The fighting in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating. Mullah Omar, the leader of the so-called Quetta Shura, may not bless such talks. Hardline or rogue factions, like the Haqqanis, may undermine any effort at negotiations. But it's a proposition that has to be tested. And this requires U.S. and, of course, Pakistani support.
Meanwhile, White House policy on Afghanistan has given far more emphasis to winning battlefield victories in order to force the Taliban to negotiate from a position of weakness than to ending hostilities through negotiations. U.S. talks with the Taliban ended last March when the Taliban walked out, claiming that Washington kept changing its position. U.S. diplomats, working with officials in Qatar, have tried to work out a deal to release five militants from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier believed to be held in Pakistan. U.S. officials made a new offer in June, and they are still waiting to hear a response from the Taliban. One figure involved with administration policy in the region says that, since the U.S. election, White House officials seem to have embraced the need for a political end-game. This may in turn effect the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. American diplomats, says this figure, "may actually take yes for an answer." Rabbani says that he received unequivocal support for his efforts from American officials.