WASHINGTON — Last weekend's deadly attack on an international hospital in Afghanistan was a reminder of the terrible war that grinds on there, with Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire.
Doctors Without Borders, a globally respected group, has charged that the deaths of 22 patients and staff members at its hospital in Kunduz was a "war crime." The U.S. has promised to investigate what Gen. John Campbell, the NATO commander in Kabul, says was a mistake.
The hospital bombing comes as the U.S. is quietly exploring some diplomatic options that could reduce the violence in Afghanistan — and perhaps even curb the danger of a nuclear Pakistan next door. As with most diplomacy in South Asia, these prospects are iffy at best. But they open a window on what's happening in a part of the world that, except for disasters such as the Kunduz incident, gets little attention these days.
The U.S. recognized more than four years ago that the best way out of the Afghanistan conflict would be a diplomatic settlement that involved the Taliban and its sometime sponsors in Pakistan. State Department officials have been conducting secret peace talks, on and off, since 2011. That effort hasn't borne fruit yet, as the Taliban's recent offensive in Kunduz shows.
But the pace of negotiations has quickened this year, thanks to an unlikely U.S. diplomatic partnership with China. A senior administration official said Monday that "we're hopeful that there will be a willingness on the part of the Taliban to resume negotiations," despite the intense fighting in Kunduz and elsewhere. Beijing's involvement is a "new dynamic" and shows an instance where "U.S. interests overlap with those of China."
The first round of talks took place in late May in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China. The U.S and Pakistan were observers to discussions there between Afghan government and Taliban representatives. A second round took place in early July at Murree, a Pakistani resort town near Islamabad.
A third round was scheduled for early August in Murree. But it was torpedoed by the leak from Afghanistan that Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supposed leader, had actually been dead for two years. After a brief interlude, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour became leader of the Taliban. U.S. officials believe he launched the recent offensive in Afghanistan to consolidate his control of the group, and they're wary of resuming the talks until the violence ebbs.
The White House is also exploring what could be a diplomatic blockbuster: possible new limits and controls on Pakistan's nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Such an accord might eventually open a path toward a Pakistani version of the civil nuclear deal that was done with India in 2005.
The nuclear dialogue is especially important because it would begin to address what U.S. officials for two decades have viewed as one of the world's most dangerous security problems.
Pakistan prizes its nuclear program, so negotiations would be slow and difficult, and it's not clear that Islamabad would be willing to accept the limitations that would be required. But the issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Washington Oct. 22. Any progress would break a stalemate that has existed since the U.S. detected Pakistan's nuclear program in the mid-1980s, and especially after Pakistan exploded its first weapon in 1998.
America may have forgotten Afghanistan and Pakistan, but those volatile countries haven't forgotten about America. The dangers are as real as ever, and so is the need for aggressive diplomacy to reduce the threat.
Washington Post Writers Group