The Taliban are planning to set up shop in Qatar – but in a good way. They'll have a physical address that could open the door to serious peace talks on Afghanistan and spark hopes of future stability
In the long, miserable story of what was once called "the war on terror", it's hard to identify turning points. Since the foolhardy US invasion of Afghanistan in particular, it's been hard to find many gems of hope in that trash-heap of a war – until this month, that is.
The best we've been able to say about the Afghanistan war is that the NATO occupation has stopped the country – and region – sinking further into violence, has put some boots on the ground to help re-building the country, and it's been a base from which the US and its allies have been able to disrupt terrorist groups. (The worst is that it's been an invasion that continues to terrorise and provoke the region and take innocent lives).
In March the NZ SAS is due to come home from Kabul, but the Provincial Reconstruction Team will remain in Bamiyan for at least another two years. So this remains our war and our problem, one that has been calleda quagmire more times than I've had hot dinners.
Then, a couple of weeks ago came one of those passing news stories that wasn't much in itself, but may point to something much, much bigger: The Taliban was going to open an office. For politics. In Qatar. With international approval.
US leaders have been trying to get talks going with the Taliban for a while now, but there have been problems. At one point they thought they were negotiating with the Taliban No. 2, only to find out he was a Pakistani shopkeeper who took off with a pile of US dollars.
So, for one, an official Taliban office would mean 'the West' could be confident they were talking to the real McCoy. The Qatari office would also get the Taliban further away from Pakistani influence and provide a safe environment for meetings.
As the Christian Science Monitor reported:
"...it will provide a more direct means of communication and serve as a symbol that Afghan and Western officials are serious about negotiations."
Talks between the US and the Taliban began back in November 2010, and according to this fascinating report in Der Speigel, has done with the help of German diplomacy.
A rapport was struck between negotiators and talk of prisoner exchanges is underway; the US seems willing to take a punt and release a few Taliban leaders from Guantanamo to show the Taliban it's serious.
The Taliban's muted response to the video of US troops urinating on dead bodies – a spokesman said, ""We know that our country is occupied ... . This is not a political process, so the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange because they are at the preliminary stage." – could be read a sign of goodwill from its side.
And this statement a couple of weeks ago, while stressing the need for continued jihad, also assured that "we [The Taliban, claiming to represent "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan"] have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation"
Could it be that this is the first step towards some kind of unity government that could hold the fractured, tribal country together?
The Taliban also seems willing to consider renouncing international terrorism and condemning Al Qaeda, which would allow the NATO and the US to claim some kind of political victory as they withdraw in 2014.
That's the crucial date. Western countries including New Zealand hope to leave some framework for a stable Afghanistan when they pull out in 2014 – the worst thing after these years of suffering would be for Afghanistan to again become a failed state and a destabilising factor for Pakistan, with its nuclear arms.
Afghanistan expert Michael Semple reckons the Qatar office is "a game-changer".
A process that leads to a reconciliation in Afghanistan, before NATO troops go home, might sound too good to be true. It might be too good to be true, in fact. But its chances now are better than they have ever been before.
But as our friends the Council for Foreign Relations point out:
The peace talks are riddled with challenges: the Taliban has sought the release of at least five senior Taliban leaders from the Guantanamo Bay prison; Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains wary of any talks that could sideline his government; and poor Afghan governance and safe havens in Pakistan continue to undermine a lasting solution.
Not to mention the political problems of it being election year in America, the need for NATO-wide support, how to negotiate Karzai's loss of control, the fact that any offer would have to be better for the Taliban than it simply waiting for the rest of the world to sod off...
But let's focus on the spark of hope to start the year. The Taliban now has an address and any chance for talk means a chance for peace. And that's good.
So keep an eye out for news of a prisoner release in the coming weeks or months – God willing, insh'allah. That's the sign that the next step is being taken.