Taliban talks and Mullah Omar’s Eid message

September 1, 2011

Since reading Mullah Omar’s lengthy Eid message on his view of Afghanistan’s future, I have been trying to work out, without success, what it means for prospects of talks with the Taliban. It is a piece of evidence without context, available to anyone to bolster whatever argument they care to submit.

Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid described the message from the Afghan Taliban leader as “the longest and by far the most forward-looking political message he has ever sent”.

“Mullah Omar does not rule out negotiations with the Americans or sharing power with the present Afghan government and he emphatically says that the Taliban have no interest in monopolizing power,” he wrote. “For the first time he admits that the Taliban have been negotiating with the Americans, but he insists these talks have been about the release of prisoners and are not a political dialogue.”

Mark Sedwill, Britain’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said on Twitter of the message: ”Interesting shift of tone. But need Taliban to match words with action and commit to peace process.”

Mullah Omar’s message coincided with a lengthy AP story on talks between the United States and the Taliban which offered a half-full half-empty snapshot of where things stood -  these had evolved into substantive negotiations, it said, before Afghan officials scuttled them by leaking the name of the Taliban negotiator.

We have known for a while that the Americans were holding direct talks with the Taliban, and according to Rashid, by acknowledging this, ”Mullah Omar is sending a clear message to his fighters that future political talks are a possibility, while signaling to the Americans that he may eventually be prepared to broaden the scope of the dialogue and those already participating in it.”

Among the more conciliatory sections in Mullah Omar’s message is a call for “a real Islamic regime which is acceptable to all people of the country. All ethnicities will have participation in the regime … Since Afghanistan has vast arable land, rich mines and high potential of energy resources, therefore, we can make investments in these sectors in conditions of peace and stability … the policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolizing power. Since Afghanistan is the joint homeland of all Afghans, so all Afghans have right to perform their responsibility in the field of protection and running of the country. The future transformations and developments would not resemble the developments following the collapse of communism … strict measures will be taken to safeguard all national installations, government departments and the advancements that have been occurred in private sector. Professional cadres and national businessmen will be further encouraged, without any discrimination, to serve their religion and country.”

It is fairly pragmatic stuff that you might have expected to come from a politician standing for election rather than an insurgent leader. So why I am left doubting that the Eid message represents any kind of step forward? 

Well first there did not strike me as being anything terribly new in it -  it is hardly a surprise that the Taliban would be willing to talk, and that any negotiations – if they were to be successful – would need to involve some kind of compromise on power-sharing.

Secondly, there is no evidence that Mullah Omar’s “shift of tone” comes in response to U.S.-led policies in Afghanistan – despite predictions made in early 2010 that an increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan would make the Taliban more amenable to negotiations.

On the contrary, as Spencer Ackerman wrote in Danger Room ”the Taliban have managed to sustain a high level of violence in Afghanistan despite the U.S. troop surge. Violence rose 51 percent from spring 2010 to spring 2011 — putting the Taliban in a position where it might credibly claim its military strategy successful in advance of diplomacy.”  

So if the ”surge” was meant to make the Taliban more amenable to talks, is the opposite true as well, that the failure of the surge has made the United States more amenable to talks?  Or  do success and failure both make  substantive negotiations more likely? You’ll appreciate why I am confused.

In fact you can make a somewhat counter-intuitive argument that the Taliban are more likely to talk seriously if they believe the United States and its allies are preparing to leave. This is not just for the obvious reasons that they want western troops out, but also because they might calculate they would have a better chance of securing a share of power at the negotiating table than by trying to fight their way to Kabul after an American withdrawal.  What we have now, however, is the worst of both worlds. On one  hand, the United States aims to secure an agreement with Kabul to keep semi-permanent bases in Afghanistan after 2014. On the other hand with its economy flagging, it is open to question whether future administrations in Washington will choose to sustain a heavy and costly commitment to Afghanistan.  It is difficult to see how the Taliban, or indeed any other party to the Afghan  conflict, can negotiate when the U.S. position is so hazy.

Thirdly, I have not seen any evidence of progress in thinking about the terms of a political settlement in Afghanistan. As I noted in this post, talks with the Taliban are a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace in Afghanistan. They are a means to an end, but we have no idea as yet what that end would look like, how power would be distributed in an eventual  settlement, and indeed what that settlement would require in terms of what is probably an inevitable rewriting of the Afghan constitution.

Or as Joshua Foust wrote at Registan.net  negotiations with the Taliban do not make much sense without a notion of where they are going. “A real negotiated framework for defusing an insurgency involves creating the structures and institutions of a government so that an insurgency is unnecessary—so that the Taliban, in this case, can pursue their goals of removing foreigners and making the central government more Islamic and less corrupt without resorting to violence to do so. Demanding they accept the current constitution as is (even though the Afghan government itself doesn’t seem to think it terribly functional), and that they give up violence as a means of achieving change … not only doesn’t make sense. It is yet more evidence that the U.S. government not only doesn’t get politics, but that it actively rejects political considerations.”

In short, apart from the shift of tone in Mullah Omar’s Eid message, there is absolutely no more reason to think that conditions are any better in terms of reaching a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war than they were, say a year or so ago.

In many ways a far better test of where things are going in Afghanistan is to reread this RAND Corporation report which attempts to predict how insurgencies are likely to end based on a study of 89 insurgencies worldwide. Published in 2010, it is far enough removed from today’s context to be free from either wishful thinking (this year we have really turned a corner) or defeatism (time to cut and run).

None of the indicators identified in the report are promising for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan – insurgencies with more than two clear parties involved, as is the case in Afghanistan, tend to have longer, more violent, more complex endings; governments have less chance of winning when insurgents have sanctuary and support in another country; “anacrocies”, pseudo-democracies which do not enjoy the support of the people, are least likely to succeed; defeating insurgencies require governments to address the root causes of conflict etc etc. The report also includes useful reminders of how far tactical successes in Vietnam, particularly after the defeat of the Tet offensive in 1968, were undercut by the unpopularity of the war and strategic impatience at home – a situation not too dissimilar to the one now faced by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

All in all, reading it carefully you come away with the sense that the United States and its allies have quite a weak hand in whatever negotiations they hold with the Taliban. But at least you have a better sense of what that hand is than you would by reading Mullah Omar’s Eid message and trying to guess at its implications. And perhaps also don’t forget -the Taliban have quite a weak hand too – they don’t have the popularity of a national liberation movement, or the full authority over a very fragmented insurgency.

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