Brian Stewart: Might peace break out in Afghanistan?

Diplomats are noticing small signs of progress on several fronts, including the formal involvement of the Taliban in peace talks in Qatar. How to read this, Brian Stewart asks.

Despite the headlines, diplomats are noting small signs of progress on several fronts

From Korea in 1953 to the Balkans in the late 1990s, pessimism about peace talks dominated the headlines until just before the combatants called it quits. Is it possible we are seeing the same phenomenon today in Afghanistan?

The public and media are often taken by surprise by these turns of events because we're not privy to the deeply secret cost-benefit calculations antagonists make.

Plus, it usually takes decades for historians to tie together all the confused and conflicting strands that finally allowed the momentum for a peace deal to reach critical mass.

This is why I'm not ruling out the prospects of an Afghanistan agreement with the Taliban to wind down this ruinous decade-long conflict faster than most of us would think possible, judging by the headlines.

There have, in fact, been a spate of recent diplomatic moves towards a deal that are largely lost from sight amid the latest uprising over the "inadvertent" incineration (Washington's version) of Qur'ans by U.S. forces at the Bagram military base.

For the first time ever in this war all the central parties — the U.S., the Taliban, as well as the Afghan and Pakistan governments — are actually talking directly to each other.

These are developments that few would have predicted just a few months ago.

Talking to the Taliban

This month, in fact, the Taliban sent a surprisingly high-level delegation to open an office in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate peace talks with the U.S.

Afghan men shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest in Kabul in February 2012 over the incineration of copies of the Qur'an. The Taliban urged Afghans to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners.

The delegation included the former personal secretary to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and several former officials of the overthrown Taliban government (1996-2001).

The initial overtures dealt with the release of Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo prison. But the Americans have noted surprisingly conciliatory statements from their foes, accompanying the Qatar move.

Two of the key U.S. demands have been that the Taliban cut all former ties with al-Qaeda and accept the tolerant provisions of the Afghan constitution, particularly those regarding women and girls.

Two weeks ago, the Taliban's chief spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, told a Saudi newspaper that al-Qaeda "is no longer interested in Afghanistan," which gave credence to speculation that the Taliban's last ties with the terror group ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden last spring.

As for women, Ahmadi insisted the Taliban would "allow women's education and other rights." Hardly a Nobel Prize-winning stand but a far cry from the movements' hard line of the past years.

It suggests the Taliban leadership recognizes concessions have to be made for peace talks to progress.

Pakistan's role

However, for these talks to be successful, Pakistan, which has sheltered the Taliban leadership throughout the war, needs to step up.

And for the first time, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this month openly and forcefully called on the Taliban to enter serious talks with both the U.S. and the Afghan governments.

This is something Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently asked Pakistan to do, but to no avail.

Last year, Pakistan quietly blocked Taliban officials travelling to meet U.S. intermediaries; this time it helped get them to Qatar.

These are the kinds of tea leaves that diplomats carefully take note of.

They also note that Saudi Arabia, the influential friend of both Pakistan and the Taliban, has been so impressed by the Qatar initiative that it is urging an even bigger peace office be opened in its capital, Riyadh.

Countries don't usually seek to host talks that they feel are doomed to fail and the Saudi's certainly have good sources in all the camps to assess the prospects.

Follow the money

A further encouragement was this month's annual trilateral meeting of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, which explored ways to push their regional interests further.

That's when Karzai announced his own direct talks with a Taliban-linked cleric believed to have close ties to insurgent commanders.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai tells the Afghan legislature in February that he had met leaders from the insurgent faction Hizb-i-Islami for peace talks.

But it was also an occasion for both Iran and Pakistan to discuss the kinds of economic incentives that might come with peace in the region.

One is a gas pipeline that both want to connect their countries, which is impossible so long as the U.S. remains and the insurgency continues. Another is for cross-border electricity lines, deals worth an estimated $5 billion a year in bilateral trade.

As always, it's nearly impossible to read Iran's motives. It has often been happy to see the U.S. frequently distressed in neighbouring Afghanistan. But now it may simply want U.S. forces gone altogether from the region, given the growing fears of future U.S.-Iran conflict.

As for Washington, Barack Obama has vowed to remove all combat forces by 2014 and the impatience to leave is palpable.

What's more, the Obama administration clearly feels that the American public is so utterly sick of Afghanistan that it would support a peace deal with the Taliban, even a flimsy one.

Meanwhile, all parties may feel, rightly or wrongly, that they'll get a better deal from this administration than a Republican one.

I know, I know

Now I admit there's a very logical argument to be made that the Taliban and Pakistan are only using the Qatar talks to play for time.

They'll simply wait for the Americans to leave in two years and then pounce on the weak Afghan government. So goes that argument and it makes sense.

But for the Taliban, and other guerrilla groups, there's no guarantee that the road to power will be all that smooth after U.S. combat forces leave.

The Taliban might well take the Pashtun-dominated south, where Canada's forces were once based.

But if the fighting continues beyond 2014 there is always the possibility that the 300,000-strong Afghan security force, by then better armed and trained, might well merge with a reborn, anti-Taliban northern alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara Shias for all-out civil war, a nightmare scenario all too easy to imagine.

If this happens the Taliban might not even be able to hold its own fragile alliance with other guerrilla groups together.

So, would it not be better, the Taliban and Pakistan friends must be asking each other, to strike a power-sharing arrangement while the Americans are still around to arm-twist the Afghan government at the negotiating table?

Pakistan is keen to have better relations with the U.S., but it likely also knows that this will come only after American troops leave Afghanistan and don't face daily security threats from across the Pakistan border.

I know the headlines don't suggest this. But we're at a point where all the main actors in this war just may realize that some well-timed peace concessions will be the best way to grease that exit ramp.