Taliban talks: “an iffy, high-level treaty”

October 15, 2010

arghandab3In Obama’s Wars, Rob Woodward attributes the following thoughts to U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on the prospects for a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war:

“He saw reconciliation and reintegration as distinct.  Reconciliation was esoteric, an iffy high-level treaty with Taliban leaders. Reintegration occurred down at the local level in villages and towns…”

It’s a good place to start to frame the current wave of interest in the prospects for a deal with the Taliban.  As we wrote in this analysis, for the first time in the nine-year war all the main parties involved — from the Afghan government to insurgents, from the United States to Pakistan are seriously considering ways of trying to reach a peace deal.

Official sources in different countries interviewed by Reuters said all the main insurgent groups — the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-ul-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — were involved in informal talks on how to open a more structured peace process. 

They also said the United States had given a far higher level of endorsement to these talks than before, while Pakistan was showing a slight shift in its approach to Afghanistan as it worries about increasing instability at home.

However, the whole thing came with a huge health warning – the current “talks about talks” are fragile, preliminary and liable to break down at any time.  Analysts and official sources caution that no one should expect an early result in a country which has seen more than three decades of war and many broken promises on all sides. And the whole process — if indeed “process” is the right word for it — is bedevilled by contradictions which could bring the whole thing tumbling down.

Here are just a few of them:


The United States and NATO say they are ready to facilitate contacts between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban to help seek an end to the war.  However, the U.S. priority still seems to be very much on reintegration — trying to break the insurgency by winning over individual fighters or commanders – rather than reconciliation through a broader power-sharing deal with insurgent leaders. 

Some analysts argue that reintegration and reconciliation can  run in parallel.  Weakening the insurgency through reintegration while fighting militants on the ground, they say,  will encourage leaders to come to the table for reconciliation negotiations.  Others make the opposite argument – that trying to break the insurgency through reintegration, combined with a strong military focus, undermines trust and makes reconciliation all the harder.

With the U.S. administration divided over Afghan policy and the many different players each giving their own spin to the media, we should expect to see much confusion in the months ahead over the extent to which the United States is favouring reintegration over reconciliation. And if President Barack Obama has a hard time keeping track of what his generals are saying, what must it be like for Afghan insurgent leaders, like Mullah Omar, to work out what is going on when they make their own calcuations on how to respond?  The image of two blind men playing chess springs to mind.


With Afghan militants using Pakistan as a rear base and given historical links between its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and insurgent leaders, Islamabad/Rawalpindi has the capacity to act as spoiler or facilitator on any peace settlement. It has long been accused of backing insurgents to ensure a friendly neighbour and counter the influence of India in Afghanistan, but is showing some signs of a shift in thinking as it faces growing instability at home.

“We don’t insist on a stable and friendly Afghanistan,” one Pakistani security official told me. “‘Friendly’ you can interpret in your own way. We have gone down to peace and stability.”

That said, the Pakistan military’s focus is still very on India as its primary threat, virtually guaranteeing that its rather conflicted policies towards Afghanistan and Islamist militants will continue.

At one point during last year’s strategic review, according to Woodward, Obama asked Pakistan expert Peter Lavoy to explain apparently contradictory intelligence reports suggesting that on one hand Pakistan feared an early American withdrawal from Afghanistan, while on the other it dreaded having a large Afghan army on its border that might ally with India. A major U.S. aim was to build that army.

What exactly was Pakistan worried about – too much, or too little? “What I am to believe?” Woodward quotes Obama as asking.

“Mr President, they’re both true, Lavoy answered. That was the nature of Pakistan,” writes Woodward.


One of the biggest questions yet to be resolved is how Afghan insurgents would be persuaded to break with al Qaeda and guarantee it would not again be allowed to use Afghanistan as a safe haven in the event of a peace deal.

Again with reference to Woodward, he writes that “like (Vice President Joe) Biden, Holbrooke believed that even if the Taliban retook large parts of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would not come with them. That might be ‘the single most important intellectual insight of the year’ Holbrooke remarked.”

As an aside, that reference to “intellectual insight” is somewhat troubling, since the Taliban have long been signalling their willingness to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base for attacks on foreign countries — it’s always worth at least considering whether people mean what they say.

But more to the point, what is unclear is how Afghan insurgents focused on a national cause – the liberation of Afghanistan from foreign occupation — are meant to be separated from Pakistan-based Islamist militants, including al Qaeda, with a global agenda.  Where does the line lie between the Afghan Taliban, focused on Afghanistan, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP),  blamed for a string of attacks in Pakistan and for training Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber? Or between the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda? (For a great overview of these overlaps, see this report by Antonio Giustozzi.)

One argument you sometimes hear is that al Qaeda has its roots in the Middle East and is something of an alien force in South Asia. In this argument, once Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas are more settled, al Qaeda’s Arab and other non-Pashtun cadres will accelerate a movement towards other bases, for example in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa

But where does that  leave Pakistan-based groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which though focused on India ideologically shares al Qaeda’s global agenda? (see Stephen Tankel’s comments on the LeT here) One of developments most analysts agree on is that in the years since 9/11, different militant groups have become increasingly intertwined, the cadres of one group working with others to plan, facilitate or execute attacks.

There are plenty of countries and no doubt many brilliant minds trying to untangle these, and the many other problems, in the way of a settlement to the Afghan war.  The sources we spoke to left no doubt that the machinery of trying to find a settlement has been put into motion. But as for the end result – that may be best summed up by a four-letter word – “iffy”.


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