Towards a settlement in Afghanistan; on terms and timing

July 10, 2010

afghan girlIn the highly charged debate about Afghanistan, one of the more common features is the straw man fallacy - in which you deliberately misrepresent your opponent’s position in order to discredit it. One of the least common is a definition of terms and timing – thereby making the straw man attack even easier.  So before a round-up of where things stand on prospects for a settlement, here are some caveats on what it does not involve.

First, as Andrew Exum highlights here, few are talking about a helicopters-on-the-rooftops of Kabul-style, complete U.S. withdrawal come July 2011, the deadline fixed by President Barack Obama for starting to draw down U.S. troops. Second, few believe the war will end in an outright victory; but rather in a negotiated settlement, including with the Taliban.  Third, when people talk about negotiating,  they are not suggesting Taliban leaders are suddenly about to lay down arms and come to the table (it is just not the sort of thing you do when your names figure on the most-wanted list.) Beyond those caveats, what you do have is a set of questions about the likely influences that will define the timings and terms of a settlement.


The obvious question is how long will U.S. and European public opinion hold up in support of the war? And also how long will Afghan public opinion tolerate the war before some segments of the population see a return of the Taliban as the least bad option?  For one indication on this, do read this piece by Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room reporting on a study showing Afghans are far more likely to react against civilian deaths caused by ISAF than against deaths caused by insurgents. 

The less obvious question is how long Pakistan can withstand what it sees as blowback from the Afghan war. A new wave of attacks, including on the country’s most important Sufi shrine in Lahore, have raised fresh fears about stability in its heartland Punjab province. Pakistan has faced attacks in Punjab before, including an assault on its own army headquarters last year. What makes the latest attacks worrying though, is the deliberately religious choice of targets – first the minority Ahmadi sect, then a Sufi shrine - suggesting that the tactics and indeed the nature of militancy in Pakistan may be mutating.

The network of militants believed to operate from Pakistan — including the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), al Qaeda, along with sectarian and/or Kashmir-focused groups based in Punjab – has never been particularly static. Allegiances shift for ideological or opportunistic reasons. Some have turned against the Pakistani state; others, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba have not. But militant groups have always been at risk of both splintering into more extreme factions, and – perhaps paradoxically – uniting into a force which would pose a serious threat to Pakistan.

For a sobering insight on this, do read Pakistan’s Competing Jihadists by Praveen Swami at The Hindu, arguing that militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba – traditionally one of the most cohesive of the militant groups – are peeling away to join more radical groups because its leadership has refused to fight the Pakistani state and the west. The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s humanitarian wing, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has a huge following inside Pakistan and in the Pakistani diaspora. If the organisation were to splinter enough and go rogue – and Pakistani security officials already blame rogue elements for both the November 2008 attack on Mumbai and for those LeT cadres fighting in Afghanistan – it could pose a danger to Pakistan, to the region, and to the west, comparable to al Qaeda.

The third question on timing is when is the regional situation likely to be most propitious for a settlement? India and Pakistan – engaged in what can arguably be described as a  proxy war in Afghanistan - have resumed talks broken off after the attack on Mumbai. But these are likely to move slowly, especially given the latest flare-up in violence in Kashmir, and probably too slowly to meet all the other competing deadlines jostling for attention in the Afghan war.

And don’t forget the other regional wild card, Iran – which has the potential to act as spoiler in any political settlement, and, as Hillary Mann Leverett argues here, would certainly do so if it is at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear programme. It’s hard to predict when that row over the nuclear programme will come to a head, but you would probably hope it is not July 2011.

All that is not to suggest Afghanistan is merely a victim of external circumstances. A change on the ground there will also influence external factors, particularly the situation in Pakistan. But the choice of the right time for a settlement is about more than predicting when, or whether, COIN is likely to achieve enough success to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table on the right terms. It’s more like trying to put together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle which is at least three-dimensional and moving all the time (and preferably without powerpoint (pdf).


Assume, for the sake of argument, that you were to decide the time to initiate (and the word is initiate, not conclude) negotiations is now, how would you get there? What does it take to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table? What do the Taliban want?

Gilles Dorronsoro makes a case here about why now is better than later, arguing that the best option would be to try to negotiate a broad agreement with the Taliban leadership to form a national unity government, with guarantees against al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan. ”Time is not on the coalition’s side. The United States should contact Taliban leaders as soon as possible rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate further,” he writes.

If you were to accept this argument – or indeed accept it six months, a year, or five years from now, the most obvious question is what do we know about the Taliban? 

After a dearth of information about the Taliban over the last nine years, some good stuff is beginning to get out there. “My Life with the Taliban” by Adbul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad, is a good place to start.  Antonio Giustozzi has just published a new report on the Taliban (I posted a blog on it here). Do read Vahid Brown, arguing that the relationship between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden was never as strong as it was made out to be; also see Leah Farrall on everything, but particularly this piece on links between the Haqqani network and al Qaeda; and Alexander Thier’s “Afghanistan’s Rocky Path to Peace” (pdf) (h/t Alex Strick van Linschoten). Then maybe go back to this old (2008) blog post about the Taliban studying the lessons of Dien Bien Phu if you need to be reminded that they are just as capable as of thinking strategically – or at least of using history to project the future – as the west. And then (and this is arguably a leap of faith that the straw man fallacists will pounce upon), assume they will act rationally in their own interest.

The Taliban know they cannot defeat the United States and its allies militarily. And waiting out the clock for the Americans to leave runs the risk of facing a renewed civil war – or as former U.S. envoy to India Robert Blackwill argued here, de facto partition. That is not a great option for a movement that, by most accounts, believes it has the upper hand and – just maybe – could secure more at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

One of the things the Taliban sorely lacked when they were in power from 1996 to 2001 was international recognition – they were recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A negotiated settlement could give them the legitimacy they never had, along with the possibility of international funding and investment. In return they would need to sever ties with al Qaeda, and accept a political settlement in Afghanistan that accommodated non-Pashtun ethnic groups and acknowledged the rights of the Afghan people (roughly half of whom are women).

Would they accept this? Does anyone know for sure until negotiations start?

Who would be involved in any negotiations? It’s clear that the Taliban will not negotiate without endorsement from the United States – President Hamid Karzai is not alone in a position to deliver. And would the main insurgent groups – the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islamli of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – sit as one opposition? As one diplomat put it to me recently, “We are still not clear how many corners that table would have.”

More prosaically, how do you manage the mechanics of negotiating? If, as many argue, the Taliban want to be recognised as legitimate stakeholders, they are unlikely to negotiate in secret (and nor, for that matter, to depend on the Pakistanis or any other party as intermediaries). Also their leaders can’t easily travel, so the kind of locations often favoured by diplomats for secret negotiations (second-rate hotels on the outskirts of cities where journalists don’t go) are not an obvious option.

Dorronsoro suggests a ceasefire – which presumably would be a prelude to public negotiations. But how then do you address the question of the Taliban names  on the United Nations 1267 Committee sanctions list? The Taliban leadership is not expected to negotiate in public until their names are removed from the list. The United States and its allies are unlikely to remove those names from the list until the Taliban sever ties with al Qaeda. And the Taliban are unlikely to sever ties with al Qaeda until after negotiations start, since that is one of their strongest cards. It’s a Catch-22 that Joseph Heller would have been proud of.

That is more than enough questions for now. A journalist’s job is to ask questions rather than offer answers, but if I ask any more, I’ll be reduced to explaining them all on powerpoint. So before anyone thinks there is a simple answer out there, let me finish instead with my favourite quote from “War and Peace”, on Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino in 1812 during the disastrous French invasion of Russia. It is about the frailty of human ambition and its belief that any one person can change the course of history:

“Napoleon played his part as representative of authority quite as well at Borodino as at his other battles – perhaps better. he did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle; he inclined to the more reasonable opinions; he made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not lose his head or run away from the field of battle, but with his sound judgement and great military experience calmly and with dignity performed his role of appearing to be in supreme control.”


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