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Breaking down three-way talks with the Taliban

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai is escorted by Afghan officials as he walks down from his plane at a military base in Rawalpindi Feb. 16, 2012.


Reports from Afghanistan have renewed speculation about a settlement that could finally end the war. For a casual reader, these headlines may bring hope or might look roughly similar to the various "talks about talks" stories that have emerged on a regular basis during the last 10 years of conflict. Nobody is claiming that substantive discussions have taken place, and none of the warring sides have agreed to stop killing each other.

Q: So what's new, really?

President Hamid Karzai gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, revealing that his officials recently had face-to-face contact with Taliban representatives. He described this as part of a three-way dialogue between U.S., Afghan, and Taliban envoys ahead of further discussions to be held in Qatar.

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Q: Is that positive?

Many commentators say this is a hopeful sign, because the Taliban previously snubbed Mr. Karzai as an "American puppet" who isn't worth meeting. The Kabul administration has not shown much appetite for talks since September, when a suicide bomber killed the government's lead negotiator.

Q: When will these three-way talks start?

Mr. Karzai has a history of excessive optimism about negotiations and he did not offer a specific timeline. Only a few hours after his latest remarks were published, the Taliban issued a statement saying the insurgents "strongly dismiss" the Afghan President's claim of direct contact with the Taliban. In another statement posted Tuesday on the insurgent website Voice of Jihad, a Taliban spokesman explained that talks with Kabul would be irrelevant because Mr. Karzai acts at the behest of the Americans: "The issue here is the issue of those with authority, and those without it," he said.

Q: Why would Mr. Karzai exaggerate his role?

All sides have been playing up their influence over the process; these talks happen in private, at secret locations, so it's hard to know who is telling the truth. A partial transcript published by The Wall Street Journal shows the first question asked by the experienced journalists who met Mr. Karzai was, "Do you feel you are being left out of the process?" The Afghan President did not answer directly. His recent actions speak for themselves, however. He withdrew his ambassador to Qatar when reports first emerged in December about plans to set up a Taliban office in that country. In 2007, his government expelled two foreign diplomats on suspicion of holding secret talks with the Taliban. Mr. Karzai has shown that he's worried about keeping a central role in any contacts with the insurgents. With both the withdrawal of the ambassador and the expulsion of diplomats, Mr. Karzai showed that he wants control of any negotiations.

Q: So what's next?

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Mr. Karzai said he will ask for Pakistan's assistance with the negotiations during his visit to Islamabad, scheduled to start on Friday. Pakistan has publicly endorsed the idea of a political settlement, but Afghan officials allege that Pakistani intelligence agents were behind the assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council that is responsible for talks. In other words, the Afghans suspect the Pakistanis of throwing a wrench in the works; like Mr. Karzai, Pakistan wants to make sure it's part of the process. Such suspicions have precedent: in 2008, a top United Nations official revealed that he met an insurgent leader for negotiations in Dubai, and Pakistani authorities responded by arresting the Taliban official two weeks later. (Islamabad has denied any role in Mr. Rabbani's death.)

Q: Is there hope?

If recent history is a guide, the negotiations won't amount to much. But the situation is so chaotic that it's probably hard for anybody – Mr. Karzai included – to make accurate forecasts. The U.S. government is putting enormous effort into the diplomatic push. One view is that Washington wants to make sure that Afghanistan does not descend into civil war or anarchy as U.S. troops withdraw in the next few years; a more cynical take is that Washington wants to make sure it's not blamed for doing enough to prevent that outcome. Either way, you can expect to read a lot more stories about Taliban negotiations in the coming years.

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