At a joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai on 11 January, President Barack Obama announced that Nato's security handover would be accelerated and control of all operations transferred to Afghan forces this spring — ahead of schedule and well before the drawdown of most foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The announcement attracted much of the media's attention. As did a set of undecided issues about the speed of the US pullout, scope of its post-2014 military presence and legal immunity for the remaining forces.
More consequential for Afghanistan's future than these military issues are questions of political strategy. Acceleration of diplomatic efforts aimed at a political settlement is what will shape the strategic environment for the 2014 transition. From this perspective, it was noteworthy that during the news conference both leaders reiterated support for talks with the Taliban and for the first time President Obama publicly endorsed the establishment of a Taliban office to facilitate these talks. Such an office has existed unofficially for some time, but has yet to formally open or be officially recognised. The announcement signalled US keenness to revive direct contacts with the Taliban that began well over a year ago in the so-called "Qatar process." In March 2012, talks were suspended when Taliban representatives accused US interlocutors of reneging on commitments, especially the transfer of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to Doha.
On the eve of Karzai's US trip, American officials stated their intention "to accelerate the peace process", for which they said Pakistan had an "important role" to play. These statements followed a flurry of diplomatic activity. Kabul proposed a "Peace Process Road Map to 2015" while Pakistan released several mid-level Taliban members from its custody. A meeting in Chantilly, France marked an important exploratory engagement between representatives of Kabul's High Peace Council, Taliban, Northern Alliance and other Afghans. Significantly Taliban representatives told the conference they were not interested in monopolising power, would work with others and respect women's rights. But what is still absent is an agreed framework or coherent peace process that can lay the basis for serious negotiations. The Chantilly meeting indicates that while opposing Afghan groups are willing to meet at conferences, this does not translate into an intention to negotiate, much less to settle.
Different tracks are being proposed by various stakeholders to establish a peace process. But to make progress, these various tracks have to converge and diplomatic efforts channelled into a single, consistent process. Otherwise, diplomatic energies will dissipate in scattered efforts. Once formalised, a Taliban office in Doha could assume a key role to install a substantial peace process. But the Obama administration will have to move with much greater urgency than it has so far. It is also unclear what the present status is of several confidence-building measures that American and Taliban interlocutors earlier regarded as necessary to launch the political office. Differences have continued on what this should be called and assigned to do, especially as Karzai fears this would shift focus from Kabul to Doha as the venue for peace talks and sideline him. The set of Continental Ballistic Missiles (CBMs) that were under negotiation before US-Taliban talks broke down, involved moving Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. They also entailed Taliban statements denouncing international terrorism. The modalities and sequencing of these steps is still undecided and will likely be the subject of intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations. US diplomatic efforts towards this end are expected to step up in coming months. The key question is what the US will be prepared to offer the Taliban to entice them to resume talks when Taliban leaders know that in under two years most American troops will depart Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long called for careful sequencing of steps to establish the conditions for a serious peace process. It has also wanted Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US to evolve an agreed political strategy that would include a mutual reduction of violence and an eventual ceasefire to prepare the ground for a "negotiated peace". It remains uncertain when and under what conditions Washington will be prepared to call a halt to fighting. The Afghan "road map" also envisages a ceasefire in the second half of 2013. The looming deadline of 2014 imparts urgency to peacemaking efforts. All stakeholders have a common interest to ensure a stable outcome for Afghanistan's transitions and cooperate to avert worst-case scenarios. No one wants 2014 to become another 1989, least of all Pakistan.