There is not much to celebrate in the Taliban’s announcement finally that it is prepared to hold talks with the Afghan government, and plenty to be wary about. The announcement came with the opening of a Taliban office in the Qatar capital Doha, which will, at least initially, host the talks. There is no clarity yet on the process, but it will most likely involve direct engagement between the Taliban and the United States before the group talks to the High Peace Council, the negotiating body set up by the Karzai government. What these talks will be about, however, is a question to which there are no clear or optimistic answers. The U.S. and President Hamid Karzai seem to be hoping that the Taliban will accept the country’s new Constitution, and a political role in accordance with it. But the Taliban are signalling something entirely different. The Doha office, for instance, is audaciously named the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, recalling their rule over the country between 1996 and 2001. They were not reticent in declaring that their Qatari base would help them “improve […] relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks”. The name has already cast a shadow on the process, angering President Karzai, who has consequently ‘suspended’ negotiations with the U.S. for a long-term security pact after coalition troops leave in 2014, accusing the Americans of playing a double game with him. Given his limited choices and the inevitability of talking to the Taliban, it is difficult to say how much of his outrage is real and how much smoke and mirrors. Certainly, nothing was unreal about the Taliban attack on a U.S. convoy outside Bagram that killed four soldiers, just hours after its public relations exercise in the Gulf city. Never has a peace process held so little promise.
The only sliver of hope that the Taliban have offered the U.S is the declaration that they “would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan”, which is being read as a sign of its readiness to jettison Al Qaeda. Even so, the road ahead for this “reconciliation” process is a minefield. In the immediate term, the process could turn on U.S. willingness to release Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo, a sticking point on which the process collapsed in 2011. Pakistan’s role — especially with Nawaz Sharif, an old friend of the Taliban, now in power — will also be crucial to how the process unfolds. New Delhi, which has no part in the process, has remained a silent observer. But if India wants its concerns to be taken into account by those who are driving this process, the time to speak up is now.