US Taliban Begin Qatar Talks
US Wants a Peace Agreement with Taliban in Time for Elections

The US has begun talks with the Taliban in Qatar that may produce a prisoner exchange.

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Amiel Ungar,

Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai

US representatives have met with representatives of the Taliban in Qatar. The two sides are reportedly trying to work out a confidence building measure by staging a prisoner exchange. The Americans will release some Taliban bigwigs being held in Guatanamo, while the Taliban will release an abducted aid worker, a captured American soldier and a member of the Afghan government peace delegation.

As the administration has already announced that it will be withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014, it would be useful for it to secure a peace agreement with the Taliban that would avoid a repetition of the fall of Saigon in 1975.  At that time, the world saw desperate Vietnamese trying to cling to the American helicopter evacuating staff from the embassy. As France has already moved up its withdrawal date from Afghanistan, the momentum towards withdrawal is accelerating.

In terms of the forthcoming elections, a peace accord would win Barack Obama points amongst the war weary American public. Such an advantage would be compounded by the promise of a peace dividend, to be plowed back into American economic reconstruction. Mitt Romney would be seen going against the grain, as his advisers believe that withdrawal is premature and the Taliban are not to be trusted.

The Taliban, for their part, are trying to spin that they would protect human rights and govern differently than the Taliban regime that was in place in 9/11 and was ousted by the NATO intervention.

The question is what makes the Taliban interested in talks when it merely has to wait for the American withdrawal in 2014. For one, Barack Obama could be defeated and a Republican administration may adopt a more aggressive position.

The Taliban may be under pressure from some of its clandestine backers. Take the Pakistanis, who have been playing a double game. The Taliban insurgency has created major strains in relations between Islamabad and the United States that are tilting American policy increasingly towards India. In case of a US withdrawal, the Afghani government could also strengthen ties with New Delhi.

Perhaps the Taliban is hurting from the NATO operations more than it let on, and negotiations, possibly accompanied by a standstill cease-fire, could provide them with a chance to rebuild their infrastructure and presence - without fear of American harassment.

The Afghan government fears that it may be bypassed by the United States in Washington's headlong rush to the exits. Therefore although the Taliban have denounced the governments of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul as an American stooge they are trying for direct negotiations with the Taliban.

If the Americans have chosen to meet the Taliban in Qatar Hamid, Karzai is seeking the support of Saudi Arabia. A senior Afghan official told the BBC that "Even if the Taliban office is established in Qatar, we will obviously pursue other efforts in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey."

He continued: "Saudi Arabia has played an important role in the past. We value that and look forward to continued support and contact with Saudi Arabia in continuing the peace process."

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not been on the best of terms. Due to Qatar-based Al Jazeera's criticism of Arab regimes, along with unabashed support and promotion of the Arab Spring that threatens Riyadh and its alliances, the Saudis would welcome an opportunity to upstage Qatar. Aware of the anxieties of the Kabul government, both American and Pakistani diplomats have come to Kabul to assure the Karzai government that will not be left in the lurch.