It may not have amounted to formal peace talks, but a two-day meeting outside Paris last month at which Taleban representatives joined other Afghan players was a rare opportunity for bitter enemies to present their positions in a neutral setting.
The December 20-21 conference was the third such event arranged by the French Foundation for Strategic Research, but the first one to be attended by representatives of insurgent groups – the Taleban and the smaller Hezb-i Islami. The 20 participants also included officials from the Kabul government and members of opposition political parties in Afghanistan.
Speaking on December 16, France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius made it clear the event was intended to generate discussion, but not negotiations.
President Hamed Karzai expressed support for the meeting, saying he backed any forum for discussion with the insurgents.
The conference came amid renewed efforts to bring militant groups to the negotiating table. The Afghan government’s High Peace Council travelled to Islamabad in November to secure the release of potential interlocutors held in Pakistani prisons, and the United Nations Security Council has lifted travel sanctions for Taleban members taking part in peace talks. (See Afghans Unimpressed by Pakistan Talks .) The UN office in Afghanistan recently announced it would be holding a conference to which the insurgents would be invited. Meanwhile, a Taleban office in Qatar is intended to serve as a contact point for a separate talks process, and Turkey and Iran have also offered their services.
The semi-secretive nature of the French meeting meant that little emerged about what was discussed. It was clear, however, that few concessions were on offer. The Taleban envoys restated their position that neither the Afghan constitution nor the Kabul government were legitimate, and they had no plans to negotiate with the latter now or in the future.
Nevertheless, back in Kabul, the High Peace Council expressed hope that the Taleban would enter direct negotiations with it.
Council representative Ismail Qasemyar said the conference was helpful in that it helped familiarise each side with others’ positions, but in the end, substantive talks needed to exclude foreign influence.
"We are not optimistic about conferences that are not [solely] between Afghans,” he said, in an indirect reference to the French-sponsored event.
Part of the various peace efforts undertaken to date has involved identifying “moderate Taleban” who might be more amenable to a deal than others. But the delegates to the Paris conference appeared as resolutely opposed to compromise as ever.
Qasemyar hinted at a degree of flexibility behind the bluster, saying, "There are certain things we can’t talk about. The Taleban's remarks at the conference were aimed purely at an international audience. The real position is quite different."
By contrast, Satar Saadat, a political analyst in Kabul, believes the Taleban leadership is in a real quandary about how to proceed and where it can make compromises acceptable to its own followers.
“For the last 11 years, Taleban leaders have motivated their forces to carry on the fight by saying the country is under attack, its government is not Islamic, and God's religion is under threat,” he said. “While the war is framed in terms of religion, it also highly personalised because the Taleban ranks include people who have lost family members.
“If foreign forces are still based in Afghanistan, the constitution remains unchanged and the movement has no substantial guarantees inside or outside the country, how can its leaders convince the rank-and-file? This will split the Taleban."
Others take a more cynical view of the insurgents’ ability to make peace, regarding them as merely an instrument of Pakistan’s intelligence service.
"Although the Taleban are tired of fighting and want to end the war, they are controlled by the intelligence services of neighbouring countries. They have no independent political will and cannot do anything without their say-so,” Moin Marastial of the Rights and Justice Party said.
Saadat said there were too many external factors at play, with various states protecting their own interests in Afghanistan and countering the influence of others.
In this context, the Paris conference also had to be viewed as partial, he said, since the French government had historically backed Jamiat-e Islami, a northern, Tajik-dominated faction and the broader Shura-ye Nazari, sometimes known as the Northern Alliance.
"The French now realise that the Taleban will be have a stronger role in a future Afghanistan, so they are trying to broker some kind of peace between the Taleban and Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-ye Nazar, so that the rights and position of these latter groups are given consideration in any future equation," Saadat said.
Hamidullah, a university student in Kabul, agreed that outside interference was a chronic problem.
"All of the political and factional groups engaged in 30 years of war in Afghanistan have been controlled by outsiders. They are not independent – the Taleban are in Pakistan’s hands; the National Front, National Coalition and some other political parties are controlled by Iran and Russia; and the government is under United States control,” he said. “What are we to expect from these groups...? No negotiations, no conference will have any outcome unless the foreign masters of these groups reach agreement."
Marastial suggested that the 2014 deadline for withdrawing foreign troops from Afghanistan might be helpful in that it might focus minds on a long-term solution rather than short-term advantage.
"In addition to economic and political goals, the countries now trying to prepare the ground for talks with the Taleban also want a part in Afghanistan’s future, and a share of the credit if a negotiated peace is reached in Afghanistan,” he said.
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul. Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's Afghanistan editor.