Past attempts by the Obama administration to start peace talks with the Afghan Taliban foundered in part because the process was not, as U.S. officials frequently claimed, "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led." In fact, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the government of Hamid Karzai, insisting its only purpose was to arrange the complete withdrawal from the country of all U.S. and allied forces. Karzai himself strenuously objected to a plan to open a Taliban office in Qatar in 2011, claiming he had been excluded from talks about it, and the initiative soon collapsed.
Consequently, it was modestly encouraging that the administration's latest effort to begin a peace process, announced Tuesday, was less at odds with its slogan. An administration briefer said he expected that an initial meeting between U.S. and Taliban officials this week in Doha, where a Taliban office will open, would be "followed within days" by a meeting of the Taliban high commission and Karzai's High Peace Council. In Kabul, the Afghan president endorsed the process, though he stressed that the talks should move "immediately" to Afghanistan, a demand that is unlikely to be met.
Direct negotiations between the Afghan government and insurgents would be a step toward a political settlement to the war. But President Obama and his aides were right to underline the fragility of the process. For it to succeed, the Taliban leadership will have to abandon its goal of eliminating Afghanistan's post-2001 government and constitution and definitively break with al-Qaida; Pakistan's military and intelligence elite will have to conclude that such a settlement is in their interest.