The Good Friday agreement that laid the groundwork for peace in Northern Ireland seemed doomed at the start due to discord over a tiny detail: Unionists insisted on sitting opposite from Sein Fein to show that they were enemies; Sein Fein insisted on sitting side-by-side, to show that they were equals. To break the impasse, the organizers of the talks had to make a special V-shaped table.
US officials should have paid more attention to details like that last week when they announced peace talks with the Taliban. As the Taliban opened a long-awaited office in Qatar to facilitate the negotiations, they raised the Taliban flag at an elaborate ceremony. That understandably infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has long feared that the Qatar office would look too much like an embassy and give the impression of a separate, equally legitimate Afghan government. Karzai promptly shut down the talks. And he had a point. The Taliban should not be allowed to grandstand for the cameras before making any meaningful concessions.
Nevertheless, talks should move forward. No one should let a flag, which has since been removed from the front of the building, scuttle this effort before it even begins. The fact is: Neither the US military nor Afghan forces can kill their way out of this conflict. The best possible solution is a more moderate Taliban that gives up armed rebellion, accepts the Afghan Constitution, and stands for elections like a normal political party. Some Taliban leaders are already leaning in this direction, and have expressed an acceptance of girls’ education, as long as it is not coeducational.
Whether the Taliban can moderate enough to be acceptable to most Afghans remains to be seen. But what Taliban leaders want, above all, is power and international recognition. If they see they are more likely to achieve those goals through the political process, rather than an insurgency, negotiations have a chance.
But credible peace talks must be backed by credible military options. For the talks to have teeth, some US troops must remain in Afghanistan after 2014, to keep the pressure on. That’s why Karzai’s decision, in the wake of the flag incident, to suspend talks with the United States on a “status of forces” agreement was dismaying and ultimately self-defeating. Karzai needs the US military, not the other way around.
Secretary of State John Kerry should give assurances that he isn’t going to strike a secret deal with the Taliban that leaves Karzai in the cold, as Henry Kissinger once did to South Vietnam in an analogous situation. For talks to be meaningful, Karzai’s government must be in the lead. In the same vein, the Afghan government should assure the Afghan people — including human rights groups and women — that it will not leave them out in the cold. Any agreement with the Taliban ought to be put to a referendum before coming into force.