Last week's media reports that the government of President Karzai was holding "high-level peace talks" with the Taliban have created fresh optimism in the U.S. and Europe about the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Afghan war. While representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban have held several secret meetings in the past years, albeit without success, the current talks have a new dimension: The United States and NATO are now facilitating the process.
Karzai set up a 68-member High Peace Council earlier this month to speed up reconciliation efforts. The council elected former president and Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani as its chairman, and its prominent members include many senior jihadi leaders with whom the Taliban fought in the late 1990s, such as Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqeq and the head of Afghanistan's upper house of parliament, Sebghatollah Mojadedi.
Both the Afghan media and Afghan political experts are skeptical, arguing that the Taliban are not willing to negotiate peace and accept conditions set by the Afghan government and the international community at a time when the insurgent groups believe they are winning.
A commentary in Kabul Weekly, Afghanistan's largest newspaper, entitled "Price Paid for Peace Must Not Be Worth More Than Its Value," called into question the chance for the talks to succeed, reasoning that the Taliban would not cut ties with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution.
Fazil Sancharaki, the spokesman for the opposition alliance led by Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's chief rival in the 2009 presidential election, said the Taliban would never negotiate peace with the new council because the head of the council and many members were leaders of the anti-Taliban movement in the 1990s.
Independent daily Afghanpaper reports that many Afghan lawmakers have also questioned legitimacy of the newly established council and its chance for success.
Mandagar, another Afghan daily, ridicules the government for hoping to make peace with the Taliban while the insurgents have shown no willingness to negotiate and see themselves on the path to victory. It says the government's insistence on peace has boosted Taliban's confidence "psychologically and militarily" and has allowed them to pursue their goals with ease.
While Kabul and Washington are focusing on reconciliation efforts, the Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked groups have stepped up violence across the country and have launched a new front in once-peaceful northern Afghanistan. "Benefiting from the open nature of negotiations under all circumstances, they are striving to expand their power in different parts of the country through increasing violence," writes independent Afghan daily Hasht-e Sobh, blaming growing instability in the north on the government's "soft and flexible" policy toward the Taliban.
The north, once hailed as the most peaceful region in Afghanistan, is increasingly becoming unstable. On October 8, the Taliban killed the governor of Kunduz province and 20 other worshipers in an audacious bomb attack at a mosque in the capital of neighboring Takhar province.
In an interview with Afghanistan's Tolo television just a week before his assassination, Mohammad Omar had warned that the Taliban and al-Qaeda controlled about 40 percent of Kunduz, and were using the province as a launch pad to destabilize northern Afghanistan and spread the insurgency to Central Asian countries.
Takhar, which borders Uzbekistan in the north, has recently seen increased presence of not just Taliban fighters but also members of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Last month, NATO troops killed several Uzbek fighters in the province. Insurgent activity in other northern provinces is also on the rise. On October 14, over 150 Taliban fighters ambushed an Afghan National Army base and a prison in the center of Sar-i-Pul province, the first such a large-scale attack in a provincial capital in the north since the fall of the Taliban.
The murder of Mr. Omar, which was the latest in a series of assassinations targeting government officials in the north, the killing of German and Swedish soldiers over the past week, and the increasing presence of the Taliban and foreign fighters in the region signal growing instability and the rising power of insurgent groups in the north. These also indicate that the Taliban are still closely linked with the transnational terrorist groups and have no inclination to lay down arms and accept peace.
Previous efforts by the Afghan government to negotiate peace with the Taliban have failed, and there is little hope the current process will bear fruit. The Taliban leadership has strenuously rejected Kabul's recent peace overtures. The U.S. and NATO must not rely on current efforts to make peace with the Taliban and instead focus on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Ahmad K. Majidyar is a senior research associate at AEI.