Talking to the Taliban and the last man standing

March 23, 2009

The debate about whether the United States should open talks with Afghan insurgents appears to be gathering momentum — so much so that it is beginning to acquire an air of inevitability, without there ever being a specific policy announcement.

The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, became the latest to call for talks when he told France’s Le Monde newspaper that reconciliation was an essential element.  “But it is important to talk to the people who count,” he said. ”A fragmented approach to the insurgency will not work. You need to be ambitious and include all the Taliban movement.”

His remarks follow much more guarded comments by President Barack Obama who said in an interview with the New York Times that Washington might look for “comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region” as it did in Iraq, involving “reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us.”

Vice President Joe Biden has also said that U.S. assessments were that only five percent of the Taliban were “incorrigible”.  He told a news conference in Brussels that whatever happened would have to be initiated by the Afghan government. “But I do think it is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state.”

According to the New York Times, the Afghan government has already begun exploring the potential for negotiations with the Taliban leadership council of Mullah Omar and with mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Al Jazeera has also reported that the Afghan government has begun talks with Hekmatyar, while the Christian Science Monitor said Kabul had opened preliminary negotiations with the network of mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

I have just written an analysis on what any U.S. dialogue with Afghan insurgents would mean for India and Pakistan, two countries with a major stake in any political settlement, and am still trying to pin down the implications for other major regional players, including Russia, Iran and China.

One theme that is emerging is the extent to which any dialogue with the Afghan insurgents would aim to peel them away from the Islamist ideology of al Qaeda by stressing their Pashtun identity above their religious affiliation. (The Pashtun lost their dominant position in Afghanistan when the Pashtun Taliban were toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.)

According to C. Raja Mohan, quoted in my analysis, “Addressing Pashtun grievances is indeed the key to any settlement. The real problem is different: all Taliban are Pashtun; not all Pashtun are Taliban. Finding the space here is the real challenge.”

The distinction between stressing the Pashtun identity over the religious identity of the Afghan insurgents could prove to be fundamental in the coming months (and that is not to suggest that the insurgents can be reduced to a single identity — you have to assume that like everyone else they have multiple loyalties, to religion, tribe, nationality, ethnic group, family etc etc).

And that brings me to what I think are the most interesting questions about any U.S.-backed talks with Afghan insurgents. How would you frame these talks in such a way as to reach a political settlement that would satisfy both the people of Afghanistan and the regional players?

Would you, for example, use Saudi Arabia as an intermediary, as has been done in the past? Saudi Arabia had close links with the Taliban before they were ousted in 2001, and is also a U.S. ally.  At the same time, its foreign policy tends to have a religious tint to it, and its involvement could create problems with Iran – a major rival in the Islamic world, which also wants to be sure that any government in Kabul respects the rights of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun Persian-speakers and of its Shi’ite minority.

Does the United States have a choice? Or, facing financial mayhem at home, will it accept any settlement in Afghanistan as long as it eliminates al Qaeda as a global threat?  (Shazia Rafi at The  Women’s Media Center and Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek both have interesting takes on how far the United States should be ready to compromise with hardline Islamists.)

I don’t have answers, but I did scroll back to a blog I posted last May asking: Who will be left standing when the Afghan war ends? At the time, I asked the Reuters reporter who covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 for his answer to that question. He quoted me the following truism of asymmetric warfare; “the strong lose if they don’t win and the weak win if they survive.”

The situation in Afghanistan seems to have moved very quickly since then, until we are now asking not whether the United States should support dialogue with the insurgents, but how.

(Reuters photos: U.S. troops on patrol in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama)


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