Last Wednesday, 50 people were killed and 90 injured, in a suicide bomb and gun attack on a courthouse in western Afghanistan.The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was an unsuccessful attempt at freeing suspected members of its organization who are facing trial.The attack occurred just days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Qatar to pave way for peace talks with the Taliban.

During the peace talks, Karzai was accompanied by Masoom Stanakzai, the head of the Afghan High Peace Council, who told the BBC that time is running out on making peace in Afghanistan.

Stanakzai condemned the courthouse attack in western Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban is finding it hard to justify the violence. He himself was injured in 2011, when a suicide bomber disguised as a Taliban peace envoy killed the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of the peace talks.

Despite the level of violence, Stanakzai believes that there is still hope for peace. “When it comes to the majority of the leadership of the Taliban, and those who are associated with them, they really support the peace process to move forward, but I think to come [and say that] publicly and openly it is still a difficult issue, and many people have lost their lives for [doing] that,” Stanakzai told the BBC.

In early 2012, Karzai also stated in a meeting with a Pakistani cleric that key Taliban leaders are killed or arrested whenever they show a willingness to negotiate with the Afghan government.

Stanakzai made it clear that the Afghan government was confident that the peace talks could move forward, following reports that the Taliban has opened an office in Qatar. However, there were no meetings with the Qatar-based Taliban themselves. “Nobody from the Taliban side met with Karzai,” the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, was quoted by the BBC as saying after his visit.

With the lack of communication between the Afghan government and the Taliban during the Qatar visit an underlying issue, several other obstacles continue to undermine the peace process.

An elusive Taliban

The Taliban came into power in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994. The group promised to restore peace and security in Afghanistan; however, they enforced their austere version of Islamic law, forcing men to grow beards, women to wear all-covering burqa, and girls over the age of 10 to not attend school.

In 2011, the Taliban sought to set a base in Qatar, beyond their headquarters in Pakistan, which is vulnerable to pressure from Islamabad and cross-border raids by the US forces. To date, nearly 10 men have set up homes in Qatar, a source with knowledge of the process told the Guardian. However, there has been no official confirmation from the Taliban that they plan to open an office in Qatar.

Karzai expressed his concerns about the lack of support from the Taliban for peace talks in a meeting with Qatari businessmen during the trip. Tolo TV, an Afghan television channel, quoted Karzai as stating: “the Taliban peace process, when it is officially announced, the opportunities will multiply hugely.” Western diplomats have indicated that their support for the Taliban’s presence in Qatar will be strained if the movement does not take concrete steps towards embracing the peace talks.

The obstacles are a result of a division between hardliners in the Taliban advocating for war until victory and moderates who prefer peace talks. A 2012 US National Intelligence estimate and a Pentagon report conclude that the Taliban have not given up on taking control of Afghanistan by force.

An ambivalent Pakistan

When the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, the Pakistani government allied itself with the group. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, Pakistan dropped its support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and became an ally of Washington. However, since then, tensions between Pakistan on the one side and the US and Afghanistan on the other have arisen: Pakistan has repeatedly denied US and Afghan allegations that its intelligence service, the ISI, has had links with militant groups operating in Afghanistan.

According to a Guardian report, looming over Karzai’s Qatar trip and the wider efforts to begin talks with the Taliban is the ambivalence of the Pakistani government, which in recent weeks appeared to have backed away from supporting the peace process.

“Unfortunately Pakistan today is changing the goalposts on its support for the peace process once again,” said the Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, Janan Mosazai, who was quoted by the Guardian. “Pakistan somehow decided now to put down certain preconditions for its support for the peace process which are completely unacceptable to Afghanistan and to any other independent country.” The Afghan government says that Pakistan’s demands include a severance of ties between Afghanistan and India, training of army officers in Pakistan, and a strategic partnership deal. The report notes that one senior Afghan source said that flights organized by Pakistan for militants to Doha, Qatar have been halted. The report concludes that without transport for negotiators talks are unlikely to get very far.

However, earlier in the year, there were also some signs of Pakistan’s support for the peace process. In mid-November 2012, Pakistan released nine Taliban officials to the Afghan High Peace Council, which is tasked with opening talks with the Taliban. The release of Taliban prisoners by the Pakistani government generated hope that talks would go ahead without obstacles created by the Pakistani government.

However, an Afghan official told the Guardian: “When optimism was prevailing about Pakistani attitudes, our human intelligence suggested that – on the ground – this optimism was not well-founded, and unfortunately we were proved right.”

According to the Guardian, many western diplomats say that Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, believes that a stable Afghanistan is more important to Pakistan than one compliant with Islamabad’s interest. However, these diplomats questioned whether the change in Kayani’s beliefs translated into change on the ground. A US source with experience negotiating with Pakistan told the Guardian: “Part of the problem is that when Kayani gives an order, is it followed three levels down?”

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who writes for the BBC, stated: “Pakistan’s change of heart – if sustained – could open up several new tracks in the peace process, bring about a ceasefire with the Taliban, encourage a wider regional settlement and improve Islamabad’s own fraught relations with Washington. Most significantly, a ceasefire and peace talks with the Taliban could dramatically improve the chances of survival for a weak Afghan government and army once Western forces leave.”

Peace talks: a short history

According to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report, the first reports on peace talks came at the end of 2008, when Karzai asked Saudi Arabia to act as an intermediary between the government and the Taliban. Early in 2009, the National Ulema Conference of Afghanistan also requested the same of Saudi Arabia. Over the following months, secret talks involving the former Taliban members took place in Saudi Arabia. In November, Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban insurgency and the head of the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the leading organization of the Taliban based in Pakistan, signalled a softening of his opposition to talks. In December, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of another militant group, released a 15-point proposal for Afghan control over a security and power-sharing scheme in February 2010, marking an important shift towards talks with the Afghan government.

Around this time, Pakistan arrested key Taliban officials, which was widely interpreted as a signal that Pakistan would not tolerate peace talks without its direct approval and participation. This diminished Saudi Arabia’s role as an intermediary. Reports emerged in May 2010 that talks were talking place in the Maldives involving QST and Hekmatyar’s group. Reports also emerged in June 2010 indicating that Pakistan was facilitating meetings between Karzai and Haqqanis, an Islamist insurgent group that is affiliated with the Taliban.

In summer of 2010, a conference on reconciliation, called the Peace Jirga, was held in Kabul, after which Karzai announced the formation of a 70-member High Peace Council. The High Peace Council was created to be the main body through which high-level talks with insurgents would take place.

Peace Process: Market bazaar approach

An International Crisis Group report argues: “Instead of a sequenced road map that would prioritize domestic reconciliation and include basic political reforms, accompanied by a multilateral meditation effort, the Afghan government and its international backers have adopted a market-bazaar approach to negotiations.” The report notes that bargains are being cut with all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes . For instance, when the High Peace Council was formed, it was led by the former Afghan president, Berhanuddin Rabbani. However, Rabanni was criticized as being unqualified to lead due to abuses during his presidency.

Furthermore, according to the Crisis Group report, the Afghan government has undertaken dangerous moves in order to bring the three main insurgent groups – the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, and the Haqqani network – to the negotiating table. This policy has stoked fears amongst ethnic minorities, civil society, and women that the aim of the Karzai government is to maintain the support of elite groups at the expense of protection for Afghan citizens.

Moreover, the report notes that the effect of international support for negotiations has been to increase the incentives for spoilers, including the insurgents and war profiteers who recognize that the international community’s most urgent priority is to exit Afghanistan with or without settlement.

Is time running out?

There is greater urgency for talks to begin and gain momentum as the date for the 2014 NATO hand-over of security to the Afghan government comes to an end. Journalist Ahmed Rashid notes that the peace talks need months, perhaps years to accomplish their goal; however, everyone, the Taliban included, prefer a ceasefire before 2014.