Peace negotiations with the Taliban?
Memo to the Taliban: We’re not saying “no” to peace negotiations, assuming you are willing to dump Osama bin Laden and stop shooting U.S. soldiers. But we’re not saying “yes,” either. Yours sincerely, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state.
That’s the way I would read the oblique and little noticed message that Clinton delivered Monday. Asked about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s call Sunday for a loya jirga council that would include Taliban members, she said this: “Obviously we are going to ask questions about how it proceeds. But the general idea of exploring this is one that we have been open to.”
I’m skeptical that either side is really ready for peace negotiations. U.S. officials have been saying for many months that they favor an eventual reconciliation with the Taliban as part of an overall political solution, but only if the Taliban abandons Al Qaeda and agrees to lay down arms. Mullah Omar, the insurgent leader, has shown no willingness to make these concessions -- especially at a time when U.S. commanders say he’s winning the war.
What makes this latest flurry of “tea with the Taliban” rumors interesting is that they’re getting press attention in the two countries that would broker any such contacts -- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn claimed Tuesday that indirect talks were underway between the United States and the Taliban, facilitated by the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services. The story named four people close to the Taliban who were said to be involved in the talks. There was no official Pakistani comment in the story, and I would caution readers that Dawn’s scoops often don’t hold up.
A similar breathless account, what we journalists like to call a “dope story,” appeared Monday in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan. The Saudi paper cited a source in Kabul who claimed that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry “is holding secret talks with Taliban elements headed by the movement’s foreign minister, Ahmad Mutawakil, at a secret location in Kabul.” That’s doubtful, to put it mildly. But it’s interesting that someone wanted to see it in print.
Here’s the background, so that you can assess future rumor-mongering. The Saudis have been hosting informal Afghan talks for more than a year, at Karzai’s request, to see if there’s a Taliban negotiating partner. So far, that effort hasn’t produced anything but meetings and more meetings. But the Saudis are still trying, with the same insistence as the U.S. that the Taliban dump Al Qaeda.
Pakistani officials doubt that the Saudi track will lead anywhere. But they like Karzai’s idea of a loya jirga that would draw in the Taliban, and they would be ready, under the right circumstances, to encourage a negotiated settlement with Pashtun insurgents.
So, basically, everybody thinks this is a good idea…sometime. Over to you, Mullah Omar.