This past week the beginning of formal peace talks between the United States and the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan and the resolution of the war there. The talks will take place in Qatar, where the Taliban recently opened up a political office, and come without the approval of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. While this is a long-awaited step in what many hope will lead to a peaceful Afghanistan, this is overly optimistic. The country will not be stable until it has a functioning government capable of incorporating different political parties and responding to its citizens, which is still a long way off.
While it's surely better to have the Taliban at the negotiating table, talks will at best lead to a temporary lull in the violence. This in itself is no small feat; by and large, the most pressing issue facing ordinary Afghans is the perpetual state of violence and fear that they are forced to live in. However, we should not make the mistake of believing that the Taliban has been forced into their current position. They have chosen to come to the table voluntarily, and there is nothing to stop them from walking away when the conditions do not suit them.
In fact, that is precisely the problem: the Afghan government is not capable of asserting its authority over the entire country, and until it is, Afghanistan will be vulnerable to insurgent groups.
The principle reason that Afghanistan was ruled for a period by the Taliban and became a "safe haven" for Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups is that its government lacks the capacity to govern. Geography is perhaps the first among a series of reasons for this, since many Afghans are spread out in small rural communities tucked away in mountain valleys. This makes the job of providing government services virtually impossible, forcing these communities to develop their own means of informal governance. These towns and villages have been susceptible to the influence of migrant extremists, who have often become part of the fabric of the communities. Thus, when the United States invaded, these communities banded together against the outsiders in what David Kilcullen calls "rejection" — as an immune system rejects a foreign pathogen. The government, in all of this, has been simply one player in a series of internal struggles, often viewed as corrupt and more part of the problem than the solution.
For there to be a peaceful Afghan state, the population has to see the government as the central provider of essential services, something which is both exceedingly difficult for reasons mentioned above and has historically not been the case. The system of government must be able to incorporate different political parties — including the Taliban — without risking civil war in the event of disagreement. This means that there must be a loyal military and police force capable of upholding the country's laws and not offering its services to the highest bidder, which NATO forces have been working to improve with little success.
Given all these complications, it's not hard to see why Afghanistan has been in a state of perpetual instability for decades. It's similarly difficult to see the recent developments as anything but an attempt by the Taliban to reassert its control over the country, given the waning interest in the conflict among Western leaders. Since there is no check on their actions, they are in the driver's seat to feed Americans all the answers that they want to hear, only to violently retake power once NATO forces leave.
Unfortunately, many Western observers make the mistake of viewing events in Afghanistan through the prism of what they would like them to be. Since the United States is eagerly leaving, it is likely to perceive events such as this optimistically — hey, maybe things are finally getting sorted out (pat self on the back). The reality, however, is that the issue of Afghanistan will not go away in any foreseeable future. On the contrary, the stage is all but set for continued instability and a resurgence in the Taliban's national power and influence.