UNHAPPILY, when it comes to anything involving Afghanistan, even extremely cautious optimism can seem misplaced. On Monday, in an announcement clearly timed to coincide with the handover of all of Afghanistan’s security to the Afghan security forces, Taliban representatives held a press conference in Doha, Qatar and announced their willingness to seek a negotiated peace agreement. But hours later, an attack in eastern Afghanistan left four foreign soldiers, presumably American, dead and yesterday President Karzai, in another apparent fit of pique, suspended his government’s negotiations with the US on an agreement to leave behind a residual foreign force in Afghanistan post-2014 and declared that the High Peace Council will only participate in the Doha talks if they are “Afghan-led” — something the Afghan Taliban have showed little interest in. If Mr Karzai is maddening, the Taliban are frightening, the US is vexing and Pakistan is opaque, meaning there is virtually nothing that can be said with any certainty about the prospects for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan other than that there will be many bumps on the road to peace.
Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that the US and the Afghan Taliban have been able to move beyond their stubborn insistence on talking past each other rather than directly to one another. The Taliban’s incentive to talk peace with an exiting superpower in a war that the US will clearly not win has always been hard to pin down: why would a resilient and powerful insurgency borne of a regime that ruled Afghanistan until the Americans arrived in 2001 give away anything at the negotiating table just because domestic opinion in the US had turned against the Afghan war, triggering a massive scaling down of US commitment to Afghanistan? If that answer has never been clear, there does seem to be another incentive for the Taliban to show up in Qatar: having an official address where the world can interact with the Afghan Taliban and they can sideline an Afghan government that is accepted as weak and unsustainable, particularly with President Karzai or his cohorts calling the shots.
Which is perhaps why Mr Karzai has reacted with such fury to the Taliban’s attempt to infuse its office in Doha with the aura of an alternative seat of Afghan power. Such are the many hiccups on an uncertain path to peace. For Pakistan, perhaps an assurance should be sought from the Afghan Taliban that Pakistan too will not be threatened by groups operating on Afghan soil.