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Anja Niedringhaus / AP

US-Taliban prisoner swap inspires tentative hopes for Afghan peace

Taliban welcomed release of Gitmo detainees and US troop withdrawal, two conditions for broaching peace

The leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency have long refused to broach the subject of peace talks until its captured senior leaders are released and all foreign troops depart the country.

So the U.S.’s unprecedented step on Saturday of swapping five high-profile Taliban prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay for the only U.S. prisoner of war taken in Afghanistan — just days after President Barack Obama announced that almost all U.S. troops would leave the country by the end of 2016 — gave rise to hopes for a rejuvenated peace process as the U.S. prepares to end its longest war.

“Maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement” between the Taliban and the Afghan government, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview with NBC on Sunday.

Just hours after Hagel planted that seed of hope, a Taliban spokesman denied the exchange would have any bearing on peace talks. “It won’t help the peace process in any way because we don’t believe in the peace process,” said Zabihullah Mujahid.

But in the past six days, some believe the U.S. has made greater strides toward satisfying what are believed to be the Taliban’s foremost conditions for entering into formal talks with the Afghan government than it did during the first 13 years of war combined.

Despite the hard-line rhetoric of Mujahid and other Taliban officials, who in public statements have always sworn off talking peace, it is believed that there is a significant faction of the splintered Taliban leadership structure that is eager to lay down their arms. Some have even sat down for secretive talks with the government of outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai in recent months, though there has been no indication of progress.

At best, the U.S. has only partly satisfied these conditions — some troops will remain in the country in noncombat roles after 2016, and there are plenty of other Taliban prisoners in U.S. custody — but the timing seems to suggest renewed U.S. resolve to kick-start talks between the insurgents and the Karzai administration.

Sarah Chayes, a South Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment who lived in Kandahar for nearly a decade and served as a special adviser to the International Security Assistance Force there, said, “There’s a certain pressure that the U.S. government has put on itself to somehow pull a peace deal out of the hat before 2016.” She added that it is “plausible” that Saturday’s exchange could be a step in the long-standing U.S. effort to broker such a deal.

Whatever the greater intentions of the U.S. in the exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, analysts note that the swap indicates the U.S. has open channels of communication with the disjointed Taliban leadership — albeit through a Qatari intermediary — which has not always been the case. There were reports several years ago that the U.S. was close to a similar exchange for Bergdahl, but communication broke down suddenly, simultaneously derailing hopes for Bergdahl’s release and a peace breakthrough.

“At a minimum, it means we’re actually talking to someone with authority,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “For a while, it was hard to figure out who the interlocutors were. Now we’re at least talking to someone who can deliver on agreements.”

If the U.S. hopes to recharge the peace effort, these are, of course, baby steps. The Taliban, which the U.S. removed from power when it invaded in 2001, is by some accounts mounting a comeback in the country’s rural south and east. They continue to receive the alleged support of Pakistani intelligence, which offers the Taliban leadership refuge within Pakistani borders. 

Another reason to temper optimism in the wake of the Bergdahl exchange is the case of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a high-level Taliban leader who was released by Pakistan last year in an attempt to breathe some life into the peace process. It inspired little movement toward any form of talks.

Along with a spate of other false alarms over the past few years, that misfire underlined how difficult it has been for the U.S. to read the intentions and motivations of the Taliban leadership. Even the planned U.S. withdrawal, which seems to neutralize the Taliban narrative of resistance against foreign occupation, could split either way, noted Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“The Taliban could decide that the international troop withdrawal gives it great bargaining power and that now is the time to sit down and press for some major concessions from Kabul — including some kind of role in a future government,” he wrote for Time magazine. On the other hand, “from an operational standpoint, the Taliban has little incentive to pursue peace,” given the fragility of the Afghan security forces, which have taken over counterinsurgency operations.

According to Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, at least 12 Afghan Taliban commanders who were engaged in some form of talks with the Afghan government were killed in Quetta, Pakistan, earlier this year. Though no one has claimed responsibility, one interpretation is that the men were assassinated by hard-line Taliban leaders who wished to silence the group’s pro-peace lobby. Others suspect the involvement of Pakistani intelligence.

But Chayes added that the U.S. was sorely mistaken if it hoped that appeasing the Taliban would help revive a viable peace process in Afghanistan. Over the years, she said, concerted U.S. efforts to bring Taliban leaders and the highly unpopular Karzai to the same table have served only to “reward the two most discredited parties in the country.”

“And they're rewarding Pakistan for having reconstituted the Taliban in the first place,” she added.

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