Taliban's New Political Office Is A 'Game-Changer'

The Taliban has announced it is setting up an office in the Gulf state of Qatar as part of a process that might lead to peace talks in Afghanistan. Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, talks to Renee Montagne about an article he's written for Foreign Affairs magazine called "How to Talk to the Taliban."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The news that the Taliban are prepared to open an office in the neutral Gulf state of Qatar offers a new hope for a negotiated end to the Afghan war. So far, all the major players - the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. - are onboard, having a place to actually talk face-to-face with the Taliban. Michael Semple has long written about Afghan politics and most recently sized up the Taliban offer in Foreign Affairs magazine. We reached him at Harvard, where he's been a fellow.

Good morning.

MICHAEL SEMPLE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, you follow the region closely. And in this article you call the announcement of this new office a game changer. That's pretty strong language. Why?

SEMPLE: I believe that the announcement of the office takes us into a whole new situation that we haven't seen before, where the Taliban movement, its leadership, have officially committed themselves to engaging in a political process. For the past ten years, we just have not been there.

MONTAGNE: That is very true. I mean, up until now the official pronouncements from the Taliban, their public pronouncements, have all been in the direction of they are not going to be talking. What changed?

SEMPLE: Ultimately, I think the leadership has finally twigged, that they're doing themselves and their country no favor by, you know, agreeing to host a battlefield for the world's jihadis and also the United States. And now they have to use all tools at their disposal to try and end the war.

MONTAGNE: Well, what happened to this concern that by putting an end date to this war the Taliban were smart enough, in a way, to just wait it out?

SEMPLE: I think that what they expect will happen is that NATO forces will draw down, but there will be some kind of residual U.S. or NATO presence, enough to prop up the government. And there is an acute risk of a shift to civil war. There are plenty of, you know, anti-Taliban Afghans who will be prepared to fight to keep the Taliban out.

And the responsible elements in the Taliban leadership have decided that the prospect of another round of civil war that could easily, you know, drag on another decade, it's so horrendous that they're prepared to take some risks to avoid it.

We sort of like worked on the assumption that the Taliban are necessarily warmongers. What if they're not warmongers? What if they're responsible Afghans who are rather concerned for the future of their country?

MONTAGNE: And what if they're people who want to effectively come home?

SEMPLE: What if they are middle-aged men who have spent the whole of their adult lives engaged in conflict and who are now at the time that they ought to be settling down with their grandchildren rather than facing the prospect of another ten years of civil war? They're middle-aged men who want to go home.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead, if you had to set out the chief obstacles to get from here to there, even for someone who might be optimistic about the possibility of progress, what would those obstacles be?

SEMPLE: The first thing that worries me at the moment is will the United States be able to keep pace with a rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan? And I say this - it's almost tantalizing. I think that few people appreciate how rapidly the debate inside the Taliban has changed over even the past few weeks and the extent to which there is now a part inside the Taliban leadership and the broader movement that wants to move towards peace.

Then, I think that there are real obstacles, problems around the current government in Kabul. They, you know, they're involved in domestic political power plays. They basically want to retain power. And they're prepared to sabotage just about anything that they ultimately see as a threat towards their power.

So will the various friends of Afghanistan be able to keep the Kabul authorities in line and make sure that they play some kind of positive role in moving this towards closure?

Then, of course, there's the issue of Pakistan. They have tremendous positive potential. Will they deliver on some of this or will they choose to sacrifice it for some other objectives?

And then, of course, you know, who wins out in the Taliban? Although, I'm convinced that there are now senior figures in the leadership who are working to try and wind down this conflict. Nothing's yet settled.

MONTAGNE: Michael Semple has worked in Afghanistan for more than two decades and most recently wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine the article, "How to Talk to the Taliban."

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