Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave the first official acknowledgment that the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban. He told journalists in Kabul that "peace talks have started with (the Taliban) already and it is going well," and said "foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations." According to the New York Times, American officials have never publicly acknowledged such talks, and the Taliban have denied them categorically. Karzai himself denied earlier reports, including from his own statements, that his government was negotiating with the Taliban.
Peace talks with the Taliban seem a long way to come since the death of Osama bin Laden less than two months ago, where Americans were chanting "USA!" in the streets. The Taliban has been known to shelter Al Qaeda in the past. So what events brought this about?
The Death of Osama bin Laden. Earlier this month, the Times reported that in light of Osama bin Laden's death, President Obama was considering a steeper withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even from an international perspective, bin Laden's death was a severe enough blow to Al Qaeda as to mark a turning point for the Taliban. The BBC reports that the U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a statement that "in view of the death of Osama Bin Laden it is time for the Taliban/insurgency to positively engage in the political process."
Karzai's Overtures to the Taliban. Karzai himself is a member of same Pashtun ethnic group as most Taliban insurgents, and has described them as "our brothers." Despite his continued denials that he is in talks with the Taliban, according to the Times, "on at least two occasions, most recently in April, he has threatened at closed-door meetings of Parliament to join the Taliban, according to published accounts." Nonetheless, he maintained that reconciliation could only come if the insurgents meet three conditions: renouncing violence, severing ties with Al Qaeda and promising to respect the Afghan Constitution.
Falling Support for the War. Perhaps equally as important as bin Laden's death in motivating a steeper withdrawal is the falling support for the war in the U.S. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against too steep a withdrawal. During a visit with President Karzai, he said that if the U.S. "can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban between ourselves and the Afghan forces and perhaps expand that security," political reconciliation talks with the Taliban could begin by the end of this year.
But his warning came after what the Los Angeles Times describes as "a much-noted shift in policy" last February, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the three demands Karzai made were no longer preconditions for beginning talks, but the "necessary outcomes of any negotiation." Exploratory peace talks began as early as late May, when American officials were reported to have met with a senior aide to the fugitive Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, at least three times in recent months.
The U.N Separates Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Just on Friday, the United Nation Security council adopted two resolutions that severed Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which were previously tied in the same U.N. sanctions regime. For the purposes of the resolution, the key difference between the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, according the Telegraph, is that "Al Qaeda is focused on worldwide jihad against the West and the establishment of a religious state in the Muslim world," while "Taliban militants have focused on their own country and have shown little interest in attacking targets abroad." The resolutions were spear-headed by the U.S., as the "Taliban have long demanded removal from the sanctions list to help promote reconciliation," writes the Telegraph.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice indicated that this separation was intended to be a signal to the Taliban. She said the new sanctions regime for Afghanistan "will serve as an important tool to promote reconciliation, while isolating extremists" and also "sends a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from Al Qaeda."
Accelerated Peace Process Unlikely. Many remain wholly unconvinced that this will be a successful process. Shortly after Karzai's announcement, at least two suicide bombers attacked a police station near the financial ministry in the Afghan capital, and the Taliban claimed responsibility. Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC that there was currently no prospect for successful peace talks with Taliban. And Paul Wood at the Telegraph comments that "no one should expect quick results from whatever contacts may be taking place. The prediction from all sides - NATO, the Afghan government and the Taliban itself - is for another summer of hard fighting ahead, and probably many more summers after that."