In a season of leaks in America, a news report from Washington indicates a renewed US effort to renew talks with Taliban representatives aimed at eventually installing an Afghan peace process.
But the Reuters report does little to contradict the view that with Presidential elections looming, the Obama administration is unlikely to take any foreign policy steps that could play into Republican hands.
Nevertheless, the surfacing of this information offers an opportunity to assess where the Afghan peace process is at the moment. According to the report, the US recently made a revised offer to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an American serviceman in Taliban custody. Under a changed sequence, he is now required to be freed after all five Taliban detainees have been sent to Qatar. Earlier, American interlocutors had insisted that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl should be freed in between the transfer of five Taliban prisoners who would be moved in two stages.
The report does not specify that this proposal was made over two months ago. It also does not mention the fact that it was conveyed through the Qataris as Taliban interlocutors refused to meet US special representative Marc Grossman when he visited Doha in June. The Taliban have yet to respond to the proposal. During a number of secret US-Taliban contacts in 2011 both sides saw the prisoner exchange as a starting point for formal negotiations. The swap was the key to other confidence building measures that were to pave the way for opening a Taliban office in Qatar. They included Taliban acceptance of a travel ban on detainees once they were in Qatar and a statement denouncing international terrorism.
When the Obama administration was unable to deliver on the prisoners, Taliban spokesmen broke off talks accusing American officials on going back on promises.
Despite President Obama’s call earlier this year for a ‘negotiated peace’ in Afghanistan, this has not brought an end to internal rifts within his administration on the issue. The American military and intelligence communities remain mistrustful of ‘reconciliation’ efforts. All this makes prospects for serious peace talks rather bleak and out of step with the military drawdown proceeding apace as the 2014 transition looms. The latest US effort to re-engage the Taliban shows that the peace process hasn’t even got to the starting point.
The Taliban accused American officials of changing the sequence of steps each side was to take. The US offered it would first release two Taliban prisoners following the required 30-day notification to Congress. In deference to the Pentagon’s wishes, it would then wait for a sixty-day period to ‘test’ the Taliban, before moving the remaining detainees. In return the Taliban were to release the American prisoner in the sixty-day period before the other three Taliban detainees were transferred to Qatar. Calling these “new conditions”, the Taliban rejected them.
Then two months ago the US communicated the amended proposal. But what does this renewed American effort really mean? Does it signal the administration’s willingness to move ahead despite the political constraints of campaign season? Some American officials argue that if the Taliban were to accept this offer — a big if as they have insisted on a one-time release of all five leader — any political flak would be offset by securing the release of the only American POW.
The offer can alternatively be interpreted as a way to use the Qatar process to sow divisions in the Taliban movement, which has seen bitter differences erupt over talking to the Americans. The leak could also be an effort by the Pentagon to scuttle the prisoner deal.
Whatever the motives behind the leak, the fate of the prisoners proposal remains uncertain. More significantly it does not square with other moves being considered by the administration such as declaring the Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation.
US officials see no tension in this fight-and-talk strategy but it is a major impediment to establishing a peace process. Pakistan views this strategy to be dysfunctional and has instead advocated the mutual reduction of violence to create conditions for peace talks.
Also, despite President Obama’s call earlier this year for a ‘negotiated peace’ in Afghanistan, this has not brought an end to internal rifts within his administration on the issue. The American military and intelligence communities remain mistrustful of ‘reconciliation’ efforts.
All this makes prospects for serious peace talks rather bleak and out of step with the military drawdown proceeding apace as the 2014 transition looms. The latest US effort to re-engage the Taliban shows that the peace process hasn’t even got to the starting point.
(Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom.)