What's At Stake In U.S.-Taliban Reconciliation?

The United States has reportedly started talks with the Taliban about reconciling before the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his government is involved, a claim the Taliban deny. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Over the last few days, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been meeting with leaders in Pakistan, including a cleric reportedly aligned with Taliban insurgents. It's all in an effort to jumpstart peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, whose leaders enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

A year ago this weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in New York in which she announced a new diplomatic push to find a political solution to end the war in Afghanistan. And that means negotiating with the Taliban. The U.S. official leading this effort is Ambassador Marc Grossman.

We sat down with Ambassador Grossman at the State Department to get his take on Karzai's announcement of the trilateral talks between the Taliban, Afghanistan and Washington, and whether political peace in Afghanistan is really possible.

AMBASSADOR MARC GROSSMAN: The United States is looking for ways to support Afghans to speak to other Afghans about their future. And so, we're delighted he made the announcement to see if we can't get some peace negotiations going, not with us, but between Afghans.

MARTIN: Just to be clear, you can confirm than that the U.S. is involved in direct talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government?

GROSSMAN: We've had some preliminary contact with the Taliban. That's not a secret to anybody. But I know you'll understand that we are not going to go into every blow-by-blow, this meeting that meeting, this day that day. And we think that's the kind of thing that's left a little bit confidential, anyway.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about some of what Secretary Clinton outlined a year ago. In that speech, she said there were very stark red lines; that the Taliban had to abide by certain conditions.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: They must renounce violence. They must abandon their alliance with al-Qaida. And they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan. Those are necessary outcomes of any negotiation.

MARTIN: How close are you to getting the Taliban to agree to those conditions?

GROSSMAN: Well, there are two things I think are important. One is: these are outcomes of any negotiation. And I would say we've put a special emphasis on the rights of women, minorities, other individuals. But the women's issues here are extremely important.

MARTIN: There has been a lot of concern in Afghanistan among Afghan women's groups, among human rights groups who have said the very idea that you would sit down with the same people who are oppressed us for years and years is anathema. How can you guarantee those people that at the end of this Afghans aren't going to be right back where they were when the Taliban was in charge?

GROSSMAN: I absolutely understand why people in Afghanistan would be concerned about this whole issue of reconciliation. Of course, they should be. But the issue here is, is that these wars end. And they end generally in some kind of political solution, some kind of negotiation. And you're either going to be part of that negotiation and shape it, or you're going to be shaped by it. To make sure...

MARTIN: How do you assuage to their concerns?

GROSSMAN: Well, one of the things that we have long advocated in Afghanistan is this very important organization there called the High Peace Council. And I think they're going to do a lot of the work when Afghans talk to Afghans about the future. Will there...

MARTIN: But wasn't the High Peace Council what President Rabbani was heading? He was assassinated.

GROSSMAN: Absolutely, he was assassinated. And, you know, if you assassinate the head of the High Peace Council, what are you going to do? You have to recommit yourself to peace.

MARTIN: Can I ask a tactical question?

GROSSMAN: Sure.

MARTIN: There were reports of the past couple of years that the U.S. had been in talks with someone who purported to represent the Taliban. And that turned out to not be true.

GROSSMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: How do you know when the U.S. is trying to get in touch with the Taliban that you are talking to the people who can really make the decision?

GROSSMAN: Well, that's a really good question. You know, we've tried to make our own judgment about who's on the other side of the table. And we judge that this conversation, the contacts that we've had, are with somebody who can kind of meet his obligations - and that's really all we ask. We think we can accomplish - we'd like to try to accomplish that task.

MARTIN: It's been suggested that the U.S. might release a handful of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - the detention facility there. Perhaps send them to Qatar, the Gulf State that has agreed to become kind of a neutral zone for potential talks, between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

What's the likelihood of that happening?

GROSSMAN: Well, in terms of likelihood of it happening, I don't know 'cause we haven't made that decision. You can imagine it's a pretty big decision to make. And to make that decision we have to first of all consider the laws of the United States. And there are very clear laws about this that Congress has passed, president has signed. And secondly, we have promised - and we've begun to carry this out - that we wouldn't do anything like this without consulting closely with our Congress.

And so, that consultation is ongoing. So how it creates confidence, will see. If we decide to do this then that judgment will come in the future.

MARTIN: Are there other things the Taliban has suggested that they need on the table before they can come to the table; that they need done before they'll agree to full-fledged real talks?

GROSSMAN: I mean I really can only speak for us. We are seeking a statement from the Taliban disassociating themselves from international terrorism; statement from the Taliban which says they are really in favor of participating in a political process in Afghanistan. And those are the kinds of things that we want. I'll let them speak...

MARTIN: And you haven't seen those things yet.

GROSSMAN: I'll let them - no, we have not. And that's why we're still in a conversation about confidence-building measures. You know, if we had seen those things, you know, we'd be having a different interview, you and I. But we're not there yet.

MARTIN: So these are still talks about talks.

GROSSMAN: Yeah, and they're talks about confidence-building measures. So when you say they're only talks about talks, hmm, fair enough. But they're talks about getting Afghans to talk to each other about the future. I think if that could occur - I don't know if it will - but if it could occur, you might save a lot of lives on the battlefields.

A lot of civilians might be alive two years from now that might otherwise be killed. You might be able to kind of put some political aspect, along with our military effort and along with our civilian effort, so we've really got a three-part strategy.

MARTIN: What's the big sticking point? Getting Afghans to talk with Afghans, what are the one or two things that have to get resolved before that can happen?

GROSSMAN: Well, I think both sides - and I think this is mostly a question from the Taliban side - the idea somehow that they'll just sit until 2014. I think they have to come to the conclusion on this, by themselves, that that isn't going to work. And how will they come to that conclusion? One: is we will keep the military pressure up. You know, we've talked about...

MARTIN: Even though the Obama administration wants to pull down all troops by 2014?

GROSSMAN: Well, not all troops. We're moving towards 68,000 forces in September of 2012, which I still think is a lot of people. And the president hasn't made a decision after that. So, the Taliban has to understand that we continue to have the capacity to act militarily - one.

Two: they should also be looking at the changes in Afghan society. I don't say everything is perfect or they are by a long shot. But over 10 years, GDP, growing really fast. You know? Ten years ago, a million children were in school - all boys. Today, eight million children are in school, 37 percent of them are girls. You know, lots more capacity for people to have health care. It's not the same country that it was 10 years ago.

MARTIN: Ambassador Marc Grossman is the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spoke with us at the U.S. Department of State.

Ambassador, thanks so much.

GROSSMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

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