A U.S. Peace with the Taliban? Don't Hold Your Breath

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Qais Usyan / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin, right, and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, talk during a joint press conference at the Afghan Foreign Ministry in Kabul on Jan. 22, 2012

A large crystal chandelier cast a weak glow over U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman and Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin as they talked up the results of the envoys' two days of meetings with President Hamid Karzai on the question of peace talks with the Taliban. But the plaster near the ceiling of the Soviet-era ceremonial hall at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was warped and discolored from a leaky roof, and a newly installed heater hummed loudly in the background. Minutes after the press conference ended, the power cut out, leaving Afghan officials — and the media — in the dark, an eloquent commentary on the peace process itself: the trappings are there, but closer inspection reveals obvious flaws.

The main reason for Grossman's visit appears to have been to reassure Karzai and his government that they will play a key part in any peace process between the U.S. and the Taliban. But the most striking evidence that the main gears of the peace machine are out of sync came when the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said that on his way to Kabul, he had had "the good fortune to visit Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and India" and that he had "found strong support for peace in Afghanistan." That statement was notable not for the countries mentioned, but for the key omission: Pakistan.

Last week, a spokesman for Pakistan's government told Reuters, "Ambassador Grossman asked to visit Pakistan, but we conveyed to him that it was not possible at the moment." Islamabad said it first had to complete a parliamentary review of the troubled bilateral relationship with Washington. Acknowledging the importance of Pakistan and perhaps signaling an effort to reduce tensions between the two countries, Grossman said that, "There really can't be a comprehensive peace process unless Pakistan is part of it," adding in a conciliatory tone and with a smile, "I would be happy to meet them at any time or any place."

And while the opening of a Taliban office in Doha has prompted some to talk of a peace process gaining momentum, Karzai's government last month withdrew its ambassador to Qatar because Kabul felt it was being cut out of the loop in talks between the emirate and the Taliban. Asked about the significance of the Taliban office in Qatar, Grossman answered that "nothing has been concluded" and "more work needs to be done."

The U.S. envoy urged that "Qatar and Afghanistan need to be in direct contact with one another," and commended Karzai's government for welcoming a Qatari delegation to Afghanistan. Yet, right now, there is no Afghan ambassador in Doha or Qatari embassy in Kabul, and the two sides appear to talk past one another. Still, even if a Taliban office in Doha would establish the credentials of interlocutors who claim to speak for the movement's leadership, and even if Washington was able to get on the same page as both Pakistan and the Karzai government, Grossman emphasized repeatedly during the press conference that the Taliban have not yet committed to peace talks.

Grossman emphasized that "we also need to have a clear statement by the Afghan Taliban against international terrorism and in support of the peace process to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan."

So, just as a vast gap remains between the objectives of the Taliban and those of the U.S., there are also gaps between the U.S. and Afghanistan. While Deputy Foreign Minister Ludin said his government would support the transfer of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to Qatar — which has been mooted as an important opening gesture by the U.S. to launch a peace process — Grossman said, "This is an issue in the United States of law, something on which we would want to consult our Congress," adding that "for our side, no decisions have been made." And given the nest of issues that remains to be untangled before any significant progress becomes possible, talk of a peace process at this stage remains somewhat hypothetical.