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Talking to the Taliban

WASHINGTON, DC – The Obama administration has affirmed that, while it will not participate directly, it supports the idea of peace negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. This nod from the White House followed the publication of reports that representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had begun preliminary high-level talks regarding a possible coalition government and an agreed timetable for a NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The issue of negotiating a rapprochement between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban is undoubtedly controversial. The hope is that the Taliban leadership is not cohesive – that, whereas some of its members are probably committed to al-Qaeda’s absolutist ideology, others might accept a compromise settlement.

Karzai and Western leaders have repeatedly insisted that their reconciliation offer does not extend to al-Qaeda members, who are seen as alien foreign elements whose extremist convictions and past terrorist activities make them unacceptable negotiating partners. Although al-Qaeda and the Taliban are united in their desire to expel Western troops from Afghanistan and reestablish a strict Islamic government in which they enjoy a monopoly of political and religious power, some Taliban leaders might accept more moderate goals.

More importantly, the Taliban in government would not necessarily support Islamic insurgencies in other countries or engage in distant terrorist attacks in Western countries, whereas al-Qaeda almost certainly would. In recent years, Taliban representatives, aware of widespread eagerness to end the country’s decades of fighting, have insisted that their political ambitions are confined to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leaders, by contrast, remain wedded to the goal of establishing radical Islamist regimes throughout the Muslim world and waging war against a long list of governments that they see as hostile to this objective.