On U.S.-Taliban talks, look at 2014 and work back

February 19, 2011

arghandab3According to Steve Coll in the New Yorker, the United States has begun its first direct talks with the Taliban to see whether it is possible to reach a political settlement to the Afghan war.  He writes that after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington the United States rejected direct talks with Taliban leaders, on the grounds that they were as much to blame for terrorism as Al Qaeda. However, last year, he says, a small number of officials in the Obama administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.

“Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.”

I had heard the same thing some time ago — from an official source who follows Afghanistan closely – that the Americans and the Taliban were holding face-to-face talks for the first time.  He said the talks were not yet ”at a decision-making level” but involved Taliban representatives who would report back to the leadership.  There has been no official confirmation.

And given that the idea of holding talks with the Taliban has been on the diplomatic agenda for a year, you would probably expect to see the various parties involved in the conflict sounding each other out – though diplomats say that in the first half of last year it was hard to get negotiations moving without the direct involvement of the Americans.  By the second half of 2010 the Americans had given greater endorsement to talks, leading — according to the source I spoke to — to direct talks beginning towards the end of the year.  

In a speech to the Asia Society on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was “launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ends the insurgency, and helps to produce not only a more stable Afghanistan but a more stable region.”

“As military pressure escalates, more insurgents may begin looking for alternatives to violence. And not just low-level fighters. Both we and the Afghans believe that the security and governance gains produced by the military and civilian surges have created an opportunity to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process, led by Afghans and supported by intense regional diplomacy and strong U.S.-backing.”

“Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace. President Reagan understood that when he sat down with the Soviets. And Richard Holbrooke made this his life’s work. He negotiated face-to-face with (former Serbian president) Milosevic and ended a war.”

Pakistan has been pushing hard for talks on a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. A senior Pakistani security  official said in December that Washington needed to identify “end conditions” in Afghanistan, rather than setting preconditions for talks that insurgents renounce al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution. He suggested instead a process in which violence was brought down, insurgents renounced al Qaeda, and a consensus then negotiated on a future Afghan constitution.

Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani also gave a detailed letter to President Barack Obama late last year on how Pakistan viewed Afghanistan. According to one western official who had seen the letter,  the ideas put forward had not been rejected, but were being studied carefully.

So it’s interesting to see that both Britain and the United States are now talking about outcomes for talks with insurgents, rather than preconditions.

According to Clinton, ” Over the past two years, we have laid out our unambiguous red lines for reconciliation with the insurgents: They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan. Those are necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”

A senior British Foreign Office official, talking last month, made the same point. She said requirements the insurgents renounce al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution applied to a settlement rather than to the opening of talks. “These are not preconditions for talks,” she said.

And many Afghan experts have long argued that the Taliban could be separated from al Qaeda through a political settlement — most recently in this report by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

However, whatever happens with talks, this will be a very slow process with a great deal of room to go wrong. The Taliban itself has publicly rejected talks, and as van Linschoten and Kuehn noted in their report, the ramped-up U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan may be fragmenting the insurgency and creating a new generation of younger, more radicalised leaders less open to a peace deal

For now, both the United States and Britain argue that the military strategy is succeeding in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table — a calculation that, if wrong, could mean that by the time substantial negotiations get under way, the leadership no longer has the authority to deliver.

And as I noted here, the aim of the current “talks about talks” is not to strike a peace deal overnight, but rather to lay the groundwork so as to reach a final phase by 2014 when the United States and its allies say they will withdraw their troops.

The United States and the Taliban never understood each other when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.  In his New Yorker article, Coll quotes a story about how Taliban leader Mullah Omar made a cold call to the State Department in 1998. “The United States had just lobbed cruise missiles at Al Qaeda camps in his nation. Omar got a mid-level diplomat on the line and spoke calmly. He suggested that Congress force President Bill Clinton to resign. He said that American military strikes ‘would be counter-productive’, and would ‘spark more, not less, terrorist attacks’, according to a declassified record of the call. ‘Omar emphasized that this was his best advice,’ the record adds.  That was the first and last time that Omar spoke to an American government official, as far as is known.”

The Taliban, by many accounts, vastly misjudged the likely U.S. reaction after the Sept. 11 attacks, when they refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for trial without clear evidence of his involvement.

So both sides need time just to learn how to talk to each other, not so much because of language differences, but because of cultural differences (though that process may have started in one of the many parallel tracks of Afghan diplomacy with former Taliban ambassador to Islamabad Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef visiting London this month.

And the substantial issues for talks lie ahead.

How will the Taliban be expected to break with al Qaeda? And where would al Qaeda remnants go once, or if, they are — to use Clinton’s words “on the run”?  With uprisings and protests across the Middle East and North Africa, few would want to introduce another element of instability right now if al Qaeda members filtered back into Egypt, where they have their ideological roots, Yemen, where it has a strong presence via Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or North Africa, home to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

How far would former Taliban leaders be included in the political process in Afghanistan?  I hear mixed reports on what could be an acceptable compromise. One official said that the Taliban should not be compared to a national liberation movement – opinion polls, though unreliable in a war zone, tend to suggest they do not enjoy widespread support in Afghanistan.  So a power-sharing deal would offer them far greater legitimacy than they deserve — or so the argument goes. The  counter-argument, which I have heard from another offiicial, is that the Taliban do not believe that it is up to the Americans and their allies to dictate how Afghanistan should be run.

Then you have the issue of whether the Taliban would be expected to owe allegiance to the existing constitution — which few seem to like much, in part because it is so over-centralised, but are also unwilling to ditch without a better alternative.

A major cause of suspicion — not just in Afghanistan but among other regional players including Iran and Russia – is that the United States might seek permanent military bases in the country even after it pulls out most of its troops in 2014. Clinton, echoing comments made by Obama in 2009, said that, ” we do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country or a presence that would be a threat to any of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”  However,  the increasing size of American bases in Afghanistan give pause for thought.

We also do not know what would happen to the current government in the event of a political settlement – though it’s worth noting that President Hamid Karzai’s term ends in 2014. If you wanted a political settlement which allowed the former Taliban leadership into government in some form, that could be the time to do it – if, and that is a huge if, conditions are right at the time.

And we do not know how the Pashtun Taliban might be reconciled with the non-Pashtun members of the former Northern Alliance, which fought the Islamist movement when it was in power in Kabul.

So in the short-term don’t expect a breakthrough. Look for progress on smaller confidence-building issues – including the release of prisoners, and taking Taliban names off the UN blacklist - to see whether the talks about talks are making any progress.  And as is the case in any peace process worldwide, expect spoilers at every stage from anyone who might stand to gain more out of war than peace.


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