Taliban talks and the lobster quadrille

June 6, 2010

holbrookeAll of us do thought association in different ways depending on history, culture and education. But for me personally the latest round of discussion about talking to the Taliban has me thinking about Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille” (with one word changed):

“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the talks?
 Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the talks?”

This weekend, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke came the nearest I’ve seen from someone from the State Department to saying that Washington might eventually have to engage with the Taliban leadership to end the war in Afghanistan.  

Asked in an interview with Reuters whether U.S. support for “reaching out” to the Taliban extended even to top leaders, such as supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Holbrooke said: ”Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It’s not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war.”

“It’s going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary … you can’t have a settlement with al Qaeda, you can’t talk to them, you can’t negotiate with them, it’s out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders.”

Until now, the U.S. military has talked about the need for reconciliation with the Taliban leadership, albeit from a position of strength, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said the Taliban were part of the political fabric of Afghan society. The London conference on Afghanistan in January was dominated by the idea that talks with the Taliban might be the best way out of a military stalemate in a war now into its ninth year.

The conventional wisdom, however, rightly or wrongly, was that the State Department was more sceptical about talking to the Taliban than the Pentagon or the U.S. Army. That is why Holbrooke’s words strike me as rather interesting.

So will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the talks?

An Afghan jirga last week agreed to try to make peace with the Taliban, but it is unclear how they plan to do that, or whether the tribal and religious leaders at the meeting were democratic enough (ie at risk of stating the obvious, representative enough of Afghan public opinion), to have the right to speak on behalf of the Afghan people. (For some excellent deconstruction of the jirga, do please read the Afghan Analysts Network).

But will the Taliban talk? One of the obvious problems is timing. There will always been a point in any insurgency when both sides realise they have reached an equilibrium and stand to gain more from striking a deal. The question is really whether both sides recognise at the same time that they have reached a tipping point where they can get more out of talking rather than fighting. And as discussed on an earlier post, tipping points in an insurgency are very hard to recognise. (One rather odd and self-defeating assumption is that the Americans will, and should, talk only when they have reached a position of strength. If you apply the same logic to the Taliban, they too will talk only when they have reached a position of strength, so the war could go on for decades.)

Pakistan may have some ability to force the Taliban to talk. It has already arrested Taliban commander Mullah Andul Ghani Baradar.If Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is living in Pakistan, the Pakistanis have probably convinced him that he needs to let them influence any negotiations on the future of Afghanistan.

 Yet Pakistan will not exploit whatever power it has over the Afghan Taliban — and most analysts argue it has less influence that it once had when it supported the Taliban government in Kabul from 1996 to 2001 – until it is reassured about India’s involvement in Afghanistan.  India and Pakistan have resumed talks broken off after the 2008 attack on Mumbai blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. But it will take a while for them to find some common ground given that the two countries are still trying to resolve their argument of 60 years ago, between a secular but Hindu-dominated India and an independent Islamic Pakistan.

Perhaps what we should be expecting is that the United States and its Taliban enemies will work out some confidence-building measures which will allow them to talk. The United States, for example, can release prisoners and take some former Taliban off the 1267 U.N. terrorism list. The Taliban can promise not to burn down girls’ schools and to sever ties with al Qaeda.

Or perhaps they will keep fighting. After all, Lewis Carroll, for all the Disneyesque rewriting of his “Alice in Wonderland”, had a rather dark view of human nature.

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