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Sun July 14, 2013
Parallels

Despite Repeated Tries, Afghan Peace Efforts Still Sputter

Originally published on Sat July 20, 2013 4:48 pm

The U.S. has been pushing the Taliban and the Afghan government to find a political solution for the past year and a half. But every time it seems the parties are close to starting peace talks, a new demand or controversy arises and nothing happens.

In the latest attempt, the Taliban finally opened a political office in Qatar, a move that was supposed to set the stage for negotiations. But when the Taliban envoys gave that office the trappings of an embassy, a furious Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, called off the talks, and they have yet to be re-scheduled.

Amid the uncertain prospects, the Taliban have continued their annual summer offensive, staging major attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.

"I think when you've got a war like this, it's actually easier to continue it than not," says Kate Clark, senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think tank in Kabul.

"In some ways it seems like you have to decide what this war's about first before you can make the peace," say Clark. She argues that it's not entirely clear anymore what the Taliban are fighting for. Is it the removal of foreign troops? The overthrow of the Karzai government? The creation of an Islamic emirate?

A Divided Taliban Leadership

The problem, say analysts, boils down to divisions within the Taliban leadership.

"As long as a significant swathe of the Taliban believes that they are going to achieve a swift military victory after the U.S. departure, there'll be no serious negotiations," says Michael Semple. He was a U.N. envoy to Kabul during the Taliban regime and is an expert on reconciliation issues in Afghanistan.

He says one Taliban faction thinks the Afghan government will collapse after the withdrawal of NATO troops. Therefore, they believe they have more to gain if they keep fighting.

But, another faction believes a military victory is unattainable – and that there's a risk of renewed civil war once NATO troops leave with the Taliban becoming just one of multiple factions fighting for scraps of political power.

"If they do come to the conclusion that there's a severe risk of civil war rather than a Taliban victory after 2014, then they are more likely to proceed with the negotiations," says Semple.

Stuck In The Starting Blocks

But there are other obstacles. Karzai says the Taliban must negotiate only with the Afghan High Peace Council – a body he hand-picked. This does not sit well with the Taliban.

"They see the Karzai government as a puppet and not worth talking to," says Clark.

And, the Taliban have long insisted that they would only negotiate with the United States - something that has long frustrated Karzai, who wants to control the peace process.

He has lashed out against the U.S. several times, making accusations that Washington is trying to cut him out of the peace process. But the Obama Administration insists peace talks must be among Afghans.

But before the Taliban talk, they want to swap five of their detainees in Guantanamo for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who's been held by the Taliban for four years. Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that's not happening.

"It's just not where the process is," Kerry said recently in Doha, Qatar.

Another obstacle is the ongoing Taliban offensive – which has been more aggressive than last year. That's in no small part to test the Afghan security forces who are now leading security operations across the country.

But there's another reason for the increased violence according to analysts like Michael Semple, who say the militants are trying to pressure the Afghan government to negotiate and make concessions.

"The worry for Taliban strategists is that if [they] call off the jihad, then [they] lose that leverage," says Semple.

Hundreds of Afghan civilians and security forces are being killed each month, and this makes peace talks even more unpalatable for many Afghans, especially the political opposition.

"Reconciliation cannot be a deal made behind closed doors, between a political clique and an insurgency who has a massive history of atrocity in Afghanistan," says Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief.

Saleh says the High Peace Council members speak only for President Karzai and don't represent the Afghan people. Saleh says that if Karzai makes peace with the Taliban by giving them a share of government and backtracking on freedoms, women's rights or other laws, the Afghan people will not go along.

"If our enemy is brought through the back window, of course we will fight," he says, though he notes the fighting could be political or through more forceful means.

Despite all of these challenges, the U.S. still says there has to be a political solution to end the war. But even Kerry isn't convinced the Taliban are ready to begin talks, let alone sign a peace agreement.

"Nothing comes easily in this endeavor and we understand that the road ahead will be difficult, no question about it," says Kerry. "If there is a road ahead."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Afghanistan, as the U.S. and NATO draw down their forces, the Obama administration continues to push for peace talks between the government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. But so far to no avail, as NPR's Shawn Carberry reports from Kabul.

SHAWN CARBERRY, BYLINE: For the last year and a half, the U.S. has been pushing the Taliban and the Afghan government to find a political solution to end the 12-year-old war. But every time it seems the parties are close to starting peace talks, a new demand or controversy arises and nothing happens. The latest came just last month when the Taliban finally opened a political office in Qatar, a move that was supposed to set the stage for negotiations.

But when the Taliban envoys gave that office the trappings of an embassy, a furious Hamid Karzai called off the talks and they have yet to be rescheduled. Amid the uncertain prospects, the Taliban have continued their annual summer offensive, staging major attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.

KATE CLARK: I think when you've got a war like this, it's actually easier to continue it than not.

CARBERRY: Kate Clark is senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think tank in Kabul.

CLARK: In some ways, it seems that you have to decide what this war's about first before you can make the peace.

CARBERRY: Clark argues it's not entirely clear anymore what the Taliban are fighting for. Is it the removal of foreign troops, the overthrow of the Karzai government, the creation of an Islamic emirate? The problem, say analysts, boils down to divisions within the Taliban leadership.

MICHAEL SEMPLE: As long as a significant swath of the Taliban believes that they are going to achieve a swift military victory after the U.S. departure, and there'll be no serious negotiations.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Michael Semple was a U.N. envoy to Kabul during the Taliban regime and is an expert on reconciliation issues in Afghanistan. He says one Taliban faction thinks the Afghan government will collapse after the withdrawal of NATO troops. Therefore, they believe they have more to gain of they keep fighting. But another faction believes a military victory's unattainable and that there's a risk of renewed civil war once NATO troops leave, with the Taliban becoming just one of many factions fighting for scraps of political power.

SEMPLE: If they do come to the conclusion that there's a severe risk of a civil war rather than a Taliban victory after 2014, then they are more likely to proceed with negotiations.

CARBERRY: But there are other obstacles. President Karzai says the Taliban must negotiate only with the Afghan High Peace Council, a body he handpicked. This does not sit well with the Taliban, says Kate Clark.

CLARK: They see the Karzai government as a puppet and not worth talking to.

CARBERRY: The Taliban have long insisted that they would only negotiate with the United States, but the Obama administration says peace talks must be among Afghans. Then there's the ongoing Taliban offensive, which makes peace talks even more unpalatable for many Afghans, especially the political opposition. Amrullah Saleh is a former intelligence chief in the Kabul government and was a leader in the anti-Taliban northern alliance.

AMRULLAH SALEH: Reconciliation cannot be a deal-making behind closed doors, between a political clique and an insurgency who has a massive history of atrocity in Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: Saleh says the High Peace Council members speak only for President Karzai and don't represent the Afghan people. Saleh says that if Karzai makes peace with the Taliban by giving them a share of government and backtracking on freedoms, women's rights or other laws, the Afghan people will not go along.

SALEH: If our enemy is brought through the window back, of course we will fight.

CARBERRY: Despite all these challenges, the U.S. still says there has to be a political solution to end the war, but even Secretary of State John Kerry isn't convinced the Taliban are ready to begin talks, let alone sign a peace agreement.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Nothing comes easily in this endeavor and we understand that, and the road ahead will be difficult, no question about it - if there is a road ahead.

CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.