Kerry in Kabul

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a joint press conference in Kabul this evening. There were three main issues discussed.

The first was an agreement for the US Forces to make a phased withdrawal from Wardak province. Announced five days ago, Wardak has been called a test case for the 2014 withdrawal. Karzai has been criticizing US behaviour in the villages, and the agreement over Wardak was presented as a move to respect Afghan sovereignty.

The second sovereignty issue was the turnover, announced today, of the Bagram prison from US to Afghan control. Parts of the prison had been transferred already, but the full handover of the 3000 prisoners was a focal point of the press conference.

The third, and most important, was what Kerry announced as a “reconciliation process”, which Kerry said was the best hope for peace for Afghanistan. Floated as a trial balloon, announced and denied for years, negotiations with the Taliban are now official US policy.

A few short notes are in order about this.

First, if the Taliban were brought into politics, given some ministerial portfolios and allowed to operate openly (perhaps accumulate fortunes), this would hardly be a break with the politics of the past decade. Other warlords, responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been integrated into the system. Peace without justice has been what is on offer since 2001, and negotiations with the Taliban, at best, would extend this result.

Second, the announced openness to negotiations as the best hope for the future, a necessary evil, an expedient, is not a general principle. Bush was famous for saying “no negotiations” specifically to the Taliban; the US insists on a series of impossible preconditions for any negotiation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But for the Afghan warlords, for the Taliban, the argument is that peace and reconciliation is best.

Third, the willingness of the Taliban to negotiate suggests that the possibility of total military victory is out of their grasp, and their agenda can be better pursued through some rebalanced combination of violence and politics. If the negotiations succeed, resisting that agenda will also take place on a changed battlefield.

Justin Podur is visiting Kabul for the next few days.

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