There is a distinction to be made between ‘peace talks’ and ‘talking about peace’. There were no peace talks in France last week when representatives of the Afghan government met members of Taliban groups and political opponents of the Karzai regime. There was no grandiloquent set of statements to wind up proceedings and there does not appear to be any plan for a further round. The French were hosts (not for the first time) to what they described as ‘a discussion between Afghans’ and not actual peace negotiations. But this is a step in the right direction. The Afghan problem is so complex that there cannot be a single answer to all of its conundrums – the biggest being to get people to talk to each other at all, never mind at the formal level of peace talks. Although there was no major shift in the position of either side, there was a shift in the mood of the Taliban. Most significantly perhaps the Taliban appeared to be unusually conciliatory, saying that they would not insist on total control of the country and, contrary to the past, they would grant rights to women.
A degree of circumspection is advisable, and it is perhaps best not to take this apparent emergent awareness of plurality of power at face value. The Taliban have proven to be remarkably durable and resilient on the battlefield, and are no less so at the negotiating table; even if these are not direct negotiations they may be seen as paving the way for more formal dialogue. The Taliban are not going to win militarily, but have not lost either. They will want to govern as much of Afghanistan as they can after the 2014 troops withdrawal. Weary observers of Afghan politics opine that ‘promises can be sold like camels’ and have a malleability about them that suggests a promise may be no more than a verbal understanding. Thus the Taliban’s talk of rights for women and respecting international human rights conventions may be no more than straws in the wind, thrown up to see in which direction it might be blowing and if it is worth following the wind – or some other path. If some of the things mentioned by the Taliban were ever to become reality, they would go some way towards repairing the battered face of Afghan society. The Afghan foreign ministry was non-committal, welcoming the talks but not expecting much to come from them. Discussions with the Taliban have sputtered at best in the last two years, and these latest talks in France may be something close to if not an utter exercise in futility. On the other hand, they may just hold a glimmer of hope.