Taliban Talks: The Obstacles to a Peace Deal in Afghanistan
• US withdrawal pledge 'handed propaganda coup' • Ceding south to insurgents risks civil war
As the big names of world politics fly into Kabul for a conference on the future of Afghanistan, many of the capital's international residents have been fleeing in the opposite direction, keen to escape before the airport is closed down and the city put into "lockdown".
Today cars in the city were stopped at checkpoints every few hundred metres as part of a "ring of steel" operation. Those foreigners who have not escaped have been banned from leaving their guesthouses by their employers.
Organisers have attempted to attach great historic symbolism to the half-day conference. Of the nine international conferences on Afghanistan held in the last nine years, this is the first to actually convene inside Afghanistan.
But even diplomats involved in the five-hour event roll their eyes when asked whether it is going to produce any dramatic changes in policy.
The communique – already leaked in draft form to the media – focuses on efforts to build up the Afghan state by making it more effective, better funded and less corrupt. But on the fringes of the conference the hot topic is a subject that is barely mentioned in the draft and until recently eschewed by the US administration; making peace with the Taliban.
That's because despite the fact that the Afghan government is finally strong enough to organise its own conference, the prospect of that government ultimately prevailing over an ever stronger insurgency has never looked more bleak.
At an evening reception a few days before the conference, a senior European diplomat said glumly: "I cannot think of a single reason to die for Afghanistan."
The country, which has suffered almost 30 years of war of one form or the other, is a problem for its neighbours, not for Europe, he said. It was a different a few years ago, when most people still thought victory was possible, he said. But now, pessimism has taken over. "Afghanistan is in a state of freefall and I don't think strategy proposals announced at a one-day conference will solve that," said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst from the International Crisis Group. A paper by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office articulated what most people believe: that the counter-insurgency programme cannot win. It sees this summer's surge of US troops in southern Afghanistan as the "grand finale" of a western intervention which is looking to wind itself up.
The biggest problem is that what Nato soldiers are trying to do cannot be achieved on the time frames of the "political clocks" ticking down in Washington and its allied cities. In a recent off-record briefing, one of the most senior US soldiers in Afghanistan pointed out that no counter-insurgency has prevailed against an enemy with sanctuaries of the size the Taliban and other groups enjoy over the border in Pakistan.
No wonder then that most people's thoughts, including Barack Obama's administration, are turning to some sort of negotiated settlement with the insurgents. It is now part of the conventional wisdom in Kabul that the west will have to make compromises with insurgents that once would have been unthinkable, including dropping efforts for women to be given a more equal place in Afghan society. Few people put it quite as bluntly as Francesc Vendrell, a retired senior diplomat who served first the UN in Afghanistan before 2001 and then worked as the top representative of the European Union in Kabul. He recently told the Guardian that the current military effort to push the Taliban out of Kandahar and Helmand was particularly foolish because these are precisely the areas that, in his view, will have to be handed over to Taliban control.
Such a handover of the south could be achieved, he argued, through constitutional reform that would decentralise power from Kabul. In a trice, the south would be ceded to Taliban control, under the pretence of local democracy. Meanwhile, the north would similarly be handed back to the old warlords, the former strongmen who rose to prominence during the 1980s resistance to the Soviet occupation and its violent aftermath.
But deal-making with the insurgents is fraught with danger. Hamid Karzai's so far fairly limited appeals to the Taliban, not least during his "peace jirga" in June, have lost the Afghan president the support of some of the few political powerbrokers who backed him that are not from the Pashtun ethnic group, from which the Taliban draws most of its support.
Haroun Mir, a political analyst and parliamentary candidate with close links to the largely non-Pashtun Northern Alliance that fought against the Taliban, predicted civil war as the ultimate consequence of peace deal with the Taliban.
He said: "The moment the south is abandoned to the Taliban, you will see the north rearming. Any change that sees the Taliban entering government and you will create a full ethnic war."
Put most simply, the risk to the Americans is that they may win over the south, but lose the north. And it is not clear how the Americans will talk to the Taliban.
European diplomats say that whatever the latest thinking in the White House might be, David Petraeus, the new US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan seems interested in making the fight against the Taliban last as long as possible. After years of refusing to contemplate even the most secret of discussions with a movement viewed as partly responsible for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Americans have precious few ways of reaching out to the other side.
A security official who has in the past been involved in efforts to reach out to the Taliban bemoaned the fact that so many years had been wasted, pointing out that in Northern Ireland the British government had contacts "from the beginning".
Instead of a well-organised effort to talk to the Taliban, there is currently an extraordinary free-for-all, with a whole range of people and countries trying to make contacts with the quetta shura, the Taliban's leadership council. They include Karzai's elder brother Qayoum, and even Burhanuddin Rabbani, a northern power broker and former president. Countries interested in getting in on the act are the UK, Germany, Turkey and Indonesia.
While Saudi Arabia is often cited as potential interlocutor because of that country's status as the guardian of the Islam's holiest places, and because of previous involvement in Afghanistan, diplomats say the Saudis are holding back after "getting their fingers burned once before", according to one diplomat.
With everyone keeping their cards close to their chests, it is not clear whether any country or individual has had any success in talking to anyone of consequence. Mark Sedwill, Nato's ambassador in Kabul, said that Karzai has had little success in forging strong channels of communication. "There are channels of communication with various people, but it is very hard for the Afghans to know how close those people are to the inner circle," he said.
Obama's announcement that US troops will start withdrawing next July has been ruthlessly exploited by Taliban propagandists to convey the impression they are on the road to victory. This has helped deter them from negotiating a peace deal now, said Michael Semple, a former deputy of the European Union political mission and regional analyst. "The Taliban's dominant perspective is to ride it out for another year. They think 'one more push and we'll get them out'."
Insurgent groups are already positioning themselves for the post-conflict power grab, he said. "Perversely, now that the Americans have signalled they are leaving, there's an incentive for the Taliban to keep fighting so they can show they were the ones who pushed them out," he said.
The British description of a commitment to leave by 2015 "plays better to the Afghan audience", he added. "That's a more Afghan-style timetable." For Nato to reverse insurgent thinking it needs to "credibly clarify its plans for the period between 2011 and 2015". For the time being the Taliban are sticking to their negotiating position that talks will not begin until foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
Another senior western diplomat said that such talk was surely just the sort of "bluff" that characterises the start of any negotiation. He also hinted that the requirement that insurgents must lay down their weapons as a precursor to "reconciling" with the Afghan government was also not to be taken too seriously.
One possibility that is often suggested as a potential confidence-raising measure is reform of the UN list of terrorists, offering to remove the names of senior Taliban officials that would allow them to travel internationally and have bank accounts.
But what the Taliban appear to be most confident about is their chances of outright victory. Rumours abound that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, has recently responded with a list of his own: a kill list of senior government officials and politicians.