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Timing right for direct talks between US and Taliban

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The Afghan Taliban, or Quetta Shura Taliban, has announced it will open a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, to facilitate direct talks with the United States. This follows secret discussions over the past year between the US, Germany and Afghan Taliban in Qatar and Germany.

The timing is now right for both American and the Taliban to engage in direct negotiations.

Because 2012 is a presidential election year, US President Barack Obama needs to be able to show progress towards peace and stability in Afghanistan to enhance his re-election prospects. More American casualties and pessimistic assessments - like last year's national intelligence estimate on Afghanistan - will obviously not help his cause.

This year, Americans will be concerned mainly about the Afghan war's continuing economic cost and American casualties. For Americans it is a war that has lasted three times longer than World War II. The US population does not really care what happens in Afghanistan in the longer term, any more than it does about Iraq, as long as there are no economic or terrorism repercussions in the US.

For its part, the Taliban sees some value from direct talks with the Great Satan. Talks will potentially put the Taliban in a stronger political position vis-a-vis the ''puppet'' Karzai Government, should result in the release of five senior Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo, could secure US agreement to stop the targeted killing of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, and will give the Taliban greater international legitimacy - including potential removal of Taliban leaders from US and United Nations terrorism lists.

Its broad political aim over the next two years will be to position itself for domination of the post-2014 Afghan government and an eventual return to power in Afghanistan.

The main losers from the direct talks are the Karzai Government and Pakistan. The US will now be in the driving seat, despite its rhetoric about an ''Afghan-led'' reconciliation process, rather than relying on the Karzai Government to make the running on peace talks. President Hamid Karzai's displeasure at being undermined was indicated by his withdrawal of the Afghan ambassador from Qatar in December 2011. Following American pressure, he has since welcomed the direct talks as a ''tension-reduction'' process.

Even so, the Karzai Government will probably try to sabotage any aspects of the talks judged to be against its interests. One small example has been its unpreparedness to accept back Taliban Guantanamo detainees; Qatar has since said it will accept them and keep them under house arrest.

Pakistan sees the talks as a threat to its influence over the Taliban, and a reduction in Pakistan's importance to the US. Pakistan is concerned that a future Afghan government could be more closely aligned with India, to the detriment of Pakistan. It will probably exert pressure on the Taliban leadership in Pakistan not to do any deals with the US that might be against Pakistan's interests.

The US found it hard last year to establish contact with legitimate Taliban interlocutors because the Taliban is not a cohesive organisation. One person who claimed to be acting for it disappeared with hundreds of thousands of dollars in facilitation funds. The US eventually settled on Tayeb Agha, former secretary to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

At the same time, more extreme elements within the Taliban and Haqqani network have tried to sabotage the Afghan Government' s attempts to negotiate with Taliban leaders. The most conspicuous example was the September 2011 killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which had been established to negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban's political presence in Qatar is likely to include Tayeb Agha and Obaidullah Akhund, former defence minister in the pre-2001 Taliban government (which was recognised only by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), along with at least three other Taliban envoys and family members.

Once the office opens, the US will be seeking confidence-building measures from the Taliban. These are likely to include: renunciation of international terrorism and al-Qaeda links (neither of which is important to the Taliban); support for democracy and the Afghan constitution - which enshrines women's rights (the Taliban might pay lip service here); and abandonment of violence (which would be in the Taliban's short-term interest in return for the US creating ceasefire zones).

Another issue that would play well at home for Obama would be the release of Private (now Sergeant) Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by the Taliban or Haqqani network since 2009. If the Taliban has him, release is possible. If the Haqqani network has him, release is unlikely until there is agreement about Haqqani participation in a future Afghan government.

Despite the US public perception of no US troops being left in Afghanistan after 2014, there will be 10,000 to 30,000 US military personnel remaining. Their main roles will be combat and logistic support to the Afghan National Army, and providing training. These activities will be relatively low profile and not likely to result in many US casualties.

The US expectation is that Australia will make a similar ongoing financial and military contribution to Afghanistan's security post-2014, and commit to that support until at least 2020. For the Taliban, the Qatar office is an important development towards eventually overthrowing the corrupt Karzai Government in Kabul. It shares a common interest with the US in a reduced level of violence over the next two to three years. However, we should expect the security situation to become more unstable after 2014 when foreign troop numbers are much reduced and different Afghan factions, including the army, will compete for power.

The most likely outcome will be Taliban and Haqqani domination of the south and east, local warlord control in other parts of the country, and a compromise Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul.

As Yogi Berra once observed, ''This is like deja vu all over again.''

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