By Jackson Diehl
The Washington Post
After months of secret contacts, the Obama administration has begun briefing reporters about a plan to open negotiations with the faction of the Afghan Taliban based in Quetta, Pakistan. Here's the sensational part: As a first move, the Taliban would open an office in Doha, Qatar — and the Obama administration would allow the transfer to home arrest there of five senior Taliban leaders now imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
If it happens, the release of the Taliban chiefs is likely to be an inviting target for Republican presidential candidates. Human rights groups, too, are likely to squawk over the transfer of Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban army chief of staff implicated in heinous war crimes.
So if the administration goes forward, it will be an act of some political courage; President Barack Obama must realize he will be creating an easy attack ad. But will he be doing the right thing? The White House is convinced that a political settlement with the Taliban is the only solution to the war, and that meeting the Quetta faction's demand for the release of the Taliban leaders is key to launching the process.
They may be right. But the administration's initiative raises some hard questions. What will the United States or the Afghan government — which has accepted the plan for talks only reluctantly — get in exchange for the transfer of the Taliban leaders? So far, what the administration's briefers are talking about sounds pretty meager. The Taliban might issue a statement condemning international terrorism or expressing openness to a political settlement. Yet the Quetta Taliban has offered no indication it would ever accept the democratic institutions and women's rights spelled out in the current Afghan constitution.
A second question is whether the talks would have the effect of reviving a group that the U.S. military has on the ropes. The Quetta faction's forces, which operate in southern Afghanistan, have been devastated by U.S. offensives since the "surge" of 2010. Talks could put them back in the center of the struggle over Afghanistan's future.
Meanwhile, the Taliban faction posing the most serious military threat — the Haqqani group, based in Pakistan's tribal territories — would be left out. An attempt by the administration to engage it diplomatically failed last summer.
A more honest formulation of the administration's position might be: Since U.S. and NATO forces are committed to ending combat operations in Afghanistan in less than three years, a political settlement is the only way out. The problem is this logic contains the seeds of its own undoing. If the Taliban knows Western forces are leaving, it has no incentive to settle — but negotiations will allow it to survive until then.