Look the Other Way, Please: What Are Those Secret Talks in Paris All About?

Hush-hush talks staged near Paris by independent organizers bring leaders of enemy sides in the Afghan war together for informal talks. Will this lead to official peace negotiations?

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Less than a week after France brought the last of its combat troops home from Afghanistan, additional developments in the 11-year war are serving to bring the long-awaited end of the NATO-led intervention into sharper focus.

On Dec. 19, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an acceleration of the U.K.’s withdrawal of fighting forces from Afghanistan beyond the 500 soldiers scheduled to depart this month. On Wednesday, Cameron said 3,800 of the country’s current 9,500 troops would return from combat duty by the end of 2013. Meantime, in the northern Paris suburb of Chantilly, the warring factions in the Afghan conflict began a two-day series of hush-hush meetings — talks involving representatives of the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai’s government alike.

The pair of independent moves shared a common objective: preparing the ground for a stable and conflict-free Afghanistan before NATO’s current operation comes to a close at the end of 2014.

(MORE: Ceremony for Returning Troops Closes French Combat Mission in Afghanistan)

The 48-hour string of huddles between enemy Afghan groups generated interest for several reasons — particularly the secrecy surrounding them. The closed meetings were organized in Chantilly by the independent think tank Foundation for Strategic Research and follow two similar gatherings last June and in November 2011. French diplomats say France’s Foreign Ministry supports that private initiative, but is maintaining an emphatic official distance from it. And for good reason: this time, representatives of the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban that continue battling NATO forces are participating in the talks.

French authorities are careful to maintain a firewall between the state — any state — and the current discussions that they only agreed to provide basic, off-the-record information on the gathering. Indeed, French officials describe the encounters as a private effort to nurture dialogue between Afghan combatants — and not peace negotiations under any official auspices. All requests for further details were referred to the Foundation for Strategic Research. (Officials there declined to comment while meetings were still under way.)

(MORE: The Loneliness of the Afghan President: Karzai on His Own)

Why such caution? One of the main reasons that the talks are unfolding so far from Afghanistan in the first place is to shield participants from harsh stares — and violent passions — of militants back on the ground. One impediment to organizing exploratory exchanges between Afghan opponents thus far has been the risk of leaders being seen meeting with enemies by their own partisans — who’d swiftly denounce them as betrayers and sellouts. The remote and obscured conference rooms of Chantilly would presumably prevent any potentially provocative visuals from reaching the rank and file back in Afghanistan, and provide the room and calm for rivals to start sounding one another out about finding potential areas of common interest.

By the same public relations formula, Western powers participating in the NATO operation can ill afford to be seen sitting down with the same groups responsible for deadly violence that has killed countless foreign forces and Afghan civilians since 2011 — often through terrorist attacks. Though most government and independent analysts argue that any stable post-NATO Afghan arrangement would require the cooperation and participation of all the nation’s enemy forces, the notion of directly dealing with groups like the Taliban or Hezb-e-Islami still remains politically risky — and possibly explosive.

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For those reasons and others, French officials say the stealthy Chantilly meetings are only intended to create a neutral and protected space in which the main combatants in Afghanistan can begin the long and difficult process of dialogue — and nothing more. Though eventual reconciliation and political accord are still hazy pipe dreams at this point, some Afghan experts say a lack of concrete results from the current meetings shouldn’t mask the importance of dialogue finally taking place.

Similar philosophy that the post-NATO era has to start somewhere was also evident in Cameron’s troop-withdrawal announcement on Wednesday. In addition to the departure of 500 British combat soldiers slated within the next two weeks, Cameron said the pullout of 3,800 additional combat forces in 2013 would roughly halve the U.K.’s current presence in Afghanistan by 2014 — the final year of the NATO mandate. Taking place amid an apparently wider shift of British strategic planning, Cameron’s decision will also likely influence American decisions on the pace of reducing the roughly 60,000 remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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Stepped-up exit schedules by both France and Britain may also influence the way U.S. President Barack Obama maintains American troops in Afghanistan after the NATO mission expires in 2014. Though Obama has pledged continued American military assistance to Afghanistan after that date, the scope and nature of that activity will depend in part on the stability achieved by then. French officials note that any extended NATO or U.N.-backed mission in Afghanistan will have to be redefined as strictly noncombat in nature. It’s hard to see how that would be possible unless the Taliban and other insurgents decide to halt their drive to bring Karzai down — and force foreign occupiers out — beforehand. Which explains why the secretive contacts and efforts by enemies to feel one another out in Chantilly are being viewed as the potentially huge step toward future Afghan solidity — even if it’s one no one will risk talking about just yet.

MORE: Afghanistan: Playing to a Draw, at Best?