LONDON (Reuters) - The Afghan government and its Western allies now have their eyes firmly set on ending the eight-year war and recognize the only way to do that is to talk to the Taliban and give them a role in Afghanistan’s future.
President Hamid Karzai will first set up a National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reinitegration to look at ways of engaging with the Taliban that will be followed by a loya jirga, a meeting of elders that traditionally resolves disputes.
Karzai will invite the Taliban to be represented at the jirga, a government spokesman said, thereby recognizing the austere Islamist insurgents have a role in deciding the political future of the country which has been traumatized by war for the 30 years.
Some analysts and diplomats say, albeit with much hindsight, that had the Taliban been invited to the loya jirga to decide Afghanistan’s future that followed the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, the last eight years of war might well have been avoided.
Kabul is keen the peace process is “Afghan-led and Afghan owned” and to keep foreigners well at bay.
That will both increase the likelihood that the Taliban will send representatives to the meeting and also allows the United States and its European allies to say with hand on heart they are not negotiating with the Taliban themselves.
The big question now is whether the Taliban will want to talk peace when from their point of view the war is going their way as the political will in the West to keep troops fighting indefinitely looks to be ebbing away.
If the Taliban do not turn up, Karzai still needs to go ahead with the jirga as he has to convince many Afghans, especially those from the largely Tajik north, not to mention many skeptical women, that negotiations with the Pashtun-dominated, hardline Islamist Taliban is the way to bring peace. He could thus use the jirga to seek endorsement for future talks with the Taliban leadership.
All this also has to done quickly too as the jirga is supposed to be held before an international conference in Kabul which Karzai said would be held in the spring.
Much has been written about Western troops getting bogged down in a never-ending fight with the Taliban, but it takes two to be in a stalemate.
The Taliban are also not achieving their stated objective of driving foreign troops off Afghan soil. Far from it, the number of U.S. and NATO troops has climbed steadily from 40,000 two years ago to more than 100,000 now and is set to rise further.
Veteran observers of the Taliban detect a measure of war-weariness beginning to creep in and see hints of a willingness to compromise amid the rhetoric of insurgent statements.
The key demand for the West is that the Taliban cut ties with al Qaeda — the original target of the war following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The Taliban meanwhile have always demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops as a pre-condition to talks.
They have also made statements saying they pose no threat to the West, indicating they would not again let al Qaeda use Afghanistan as a base for attacks abroad.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in 2011 could also allow the Taliban to compromise on their demand for a full pull-out as a prelude to negotiations.
If indeed there is a diplomatic route out of the impasse, it is certain to be just like Afghanistan’s roads; tortuous and filled with potholes. There will also be many breakdowns along the way.
Editing by Myra MacDonald