This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed in the McClatchy Tribune, May 10, 2010

A negotiated agreement with the Afghan Taliban leadership holds great appeal as a short cut to ending an insurgency of indefinite duration and uncertain outcome. Behind the scenes peacemaking initiatives have been reported with increasing frequency in recent months. The topic is likely to figure prominently during this week’s meetings in Washington with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He is expected to press the Obama Administration for its endorsement of his efforts to seek a political solution that may include power sharing with leaders of the insurgency.

But before we take too seriously the route of political reconciliation with Mullah Omar and his associates we need to understand the motives of those promoting negotiations, realistically assess the current prospects for talks, and gauge the probable consequences of any agreement that can be achieved in the near future.

The push for negotiations has two major drivers, the Afghan President and Pakistan’s military. Karzai’s objectives are practical and political while Pakistan’s are strategic. The President’s peace offensive picked up steam after the discredited September elections. By playing a nationalist card, Karzai sought to refurbish his public image as the champion of Afghan self-determination among a people increasingly weary of years of conflict and an intrusive foreign hand. Karzai airs popular grievances, assured that his reelection for another five years leaves his international allies with no choice but to tolerate often irresponsible rhetoric. With his eagerness to launch negotiations, Karzai has already succeeded in changing a policy agenda that was supposed to be focused on internationally demanded domestic reforms.

For Pakistan, negotiations that it expects to orchestrate and mediate offer the best way to protect its interests in Afghanistan after the anticipated early departure of most US and international forces. The Pakistani military is especially anxious to install a government in Kabul resistant to Indian influence. A coalition government is also intended to avoid a proxy civil war that could pit a Pakistani backed Taliban against the client forces of Iran and Russia. While power sharing would deny a monopoly of power to Pashtun forces long assumed friendly to Pakistan, it reflects concerns that the sometimes difficult to control Taliban leaders could turn around and provide strategic depth for Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgents.

Simply put, the necessary conditions for serious negotiations do not exist. Taliban have little incentive to compromise. Claims that the Taliban leaders are willing to explore peace terms because they have assessed that with American military buildup the insurgency has reached its apex fly in the face of the facts. The Taliban have good reason to believe they have the momentum and that with international forces losing heart in the fight, time is on their side. Though publicly disparaging negotiations, Taliban leaders have no problem with privately signaling the possibility of reaching a deal. As Kabul willingly takes the bait, it makes the insurgents into legitimate negotiating partners rather than a ruthless enemy. Raising prospects for peace could not be better timed for the Taliban as the critical military campaign in Kandahar Province gets underway and many Afghans must decide with whom to cast their lot.

Talks have been underway for many months with one element of the insurgency, the Hesb-e-Islami. Led by the once favored son of Pakistan’s ISI during 1980’s anti-communist jihad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the party is well represented by former members within Karzai’s government and the parliament. Hekmatyar fighters are only loosely linked to the Taliban, against whom he fought in the mid-1990s, but they have shared goals in seeking the expulsion of US and international troops and envisioning a more doctrinaire Islamic state. Reaching an agreement with Hekmatyar would bring back a man with heavy responsibility for Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s, and whose reputation since the early 1970s is as one of the country’s most devious and unscrupulous political figures.

Above all, Afghanistan’s well-armed northern ethnic minorities are almost certain to resist attempts to bring the Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics. The ideologically driven Taliban are unlikely to settle for a subordinate government role for very long. Nor can they be depended on to deny a foothold to regional or international terrorist organizations in face of a likely civil war. Afghanistan’s Pashtun south and east will not only be open to al-Qaeda but, more importantly, to those groups able to operate more freely like Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, and the Pakistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, all closely linked to the newly internationally-minded Pakistani Taliban.

To the extent that Karzai limits his peace aims to cutting deals with individual Taliban commanders and their foot soldiers, the United States can have no quarrel. It mirrors our own counterinsurgency strategy of creating incentives that peal off those insurgents motivated more by grievances than the Taliban’s ideology. Our differences with Karzai are a matter of timing. Meaningful reintegration of Taliban fighters can begin only by scoring successes in the ongoing struggle to change popular perceptions—possible only after military gains have paved the way for improved local governance and development. Until then, any probing for a grand bargain with the Taliban leadership undermines American efforts and sets back chances for a real political solution.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.