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Sun 8 Jan 2012 02:22 PM

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Don’t jump the gun on Taliban opening shop in Qatar

Taliban play cards close to their chest, meaning talk of a peace deal might be overblown

Don’t jump the gun on Taliban opening shop in Qatar
Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The government has said the Qatar offer shows good faith

   News that the Taliban plans to open a political office in the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar has inspired some optimism that a peace deal might be achievable in advance of the US pullout in 2014.

Let's not put the jirga in front of the loya, folks.

First, everybody knows that "secret talks" between Taliban and US emissaries have been going on sporadically for some time, and last May American officials met with Tayeb Agha, a senior aide to Mullah Muhammed Omar.

Second, the Taliban's main concern right now seems to be negotiating the freedom of five of their number now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - a deal president Barack Obama is unlikely to pursue at a time when the Republican presidential candidates are looking to paint him as soft on terrorism.

Third, if the Taliban is really taking up a pied-a-terre in Qatar, it had best have many rooms, because there are various "Talibans," each with its own hierarchy and interests (not to mention the somewhat-distinct Haqqani network operating in northwestern Pakistan).

It's even unclear if Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokesman who announced the political office plan, is directly affiliated with Mullah Omar.

Most important, however, is this question: why would the Taliban want to talk now?

After a decade of being assaulted by the world's sole military superpower, the Islamist force has been greatly diminished but remains lethal, and enjoys the backing of the Pakistani security services.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai's support is as shallow as his political skills, and he's done his best to alienate even his Western allies.

With the US and NATO having sworn to get out of the country, the Taliban's best play is to sit back and wait a few years, and then either attempt to re-take the country or dictate the terms of peace.

Contra vice president Joe Biden, the Taliban is "per se" our enemy - a fact that Obama re-emphasised by signing the defense re-authorisation act on Dec 31. However, there's nothing wrong with talking to the enemy, especially when you've already put a time limit on the conflict.

The tiny chance of forging some acceptable truce with the Taliban that would give them a share of political power while maintaining some form of democracy, women's rights and the like in Afghanistan is worth the effort.

Indeed, the worst incident in the whole business - the suicide bombing last September in Kabul that killed Burhanuddi Rabbani, the leader of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council - can be seen as a flicker of hope: why would hard-liners have killed him unless they worried that his efforts to negotiate peace might have borne some fruit?

(Tobin Harshaw is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. The opinions expressed are his own.)