Talking to the Taliban:an elusive peace in Afghanistan

January 4, 2012

It is the season for “progress” on Taliban talks. In January 2010, the London conference on Afghanistan put the idea of negotiating with the Taliban firmly on the international agenda. In February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a major policy speech, insisted it was time the United States began to talk to its enemies. Her speech was accompanied by a leaked report that Washington was in fact already holding direct talks with the Taliban to try to convince them to join a political settlement and sever ties with al Qaeda. And now we have the Taliban agreeing to open a liaison office in Qatar to help speed along the talks process as Washington prepares to withdraw most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

But what are we actually looking at here? A quick-fix settlement that could provide just about enough cover for war-weary western governments to pull their troops out before Afghanistan descends again into civil war? Or a serious process which might offer an enduring peace? Do we believe the Taliban are now more amenable to talks than they were before? Or rather that domestic political compulsions in the United States are driving it more rapidly towards the exit? 

Let’s be clear. The idea the Taliban would be willing to negotiate some kind of power-sharing deal, and that talks could be helped by measures like the release of prisoners, has been around for a couple of years, if not longer.  Moreover, a lasting settlement would require not just a deal with the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, but also reconciliation among all the different actors inside Afghanistan as well as deep-rooted governance reform. It would  need intensive regional diplomacy to prevent the country’s neighbours from undermining any settlement — whether this be driven by Pakistan’s unhappiness with Indian involvement in Afghanistan, or the temptation for Iran to queer the pitch as its row with the west over its nuclear programme worsens.

Arguably the chances of reaching a lasting settlement  are less now than they were before the United States sent extra troops to Afghanistan in 2010 aiming to decisively turn the tide and force the Taliban to the negotiating table from a position of strength.  Since then, the military campaign has splintered the Taliban, making it harder for its Pakistan-based leadership to bring younger and more radicalised fighters  into an overall settlement.  The souring of ties between the United States and Pakistan over 2011 – particularly after the killing of bin Laden on May 2 - and the deteriorating political environment inside Pakistan itself,  all argue against the chances of making a real and enduring peace process work.

In that context, a new book due out this month on the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn could hardly be better timed. “An Enemy We Created, The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010” should be compulsory reading for anyone trying to separate reality from political spin. It is also an essential guide to what might yet be achieved through talks, and what might have been achieved had serious talks been held earlier.

The authors, who edited the memoirs of former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, examine in detail the failure of attempts to convince Afghanistan’s then Taliban rulers to expel Osama bin Laden in the years before the Sept. 11 2001 attacks.  That these attempts were not inevitably  doomed to fail is underlined by their assertion that the relationship between the younger and less experienced Afghan Taliban and the Arabs in al Qaeda was considerably less close than was commonly assumed (an argument also made by other scholars.) 

However, they argue that Washington’s single-minded focus on bin Laden jarred with the Taliban’s often conflicted views - where international pressure to expel al Qaeda competed with their own domestic insecurities as well as concerns about how such a move would be viewed by Muslims outside Afghanistan,  particularly in the Arab world . Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, the authors argue that an outcome other than war might have been possible. “A different development of the conflict is imaginable. Neither the United States nor the Taliban displayed the political will or insight to make it happen.”

While this assertion will no doubt be fiercely disputed by historians for years to come, what is relevant to today is that the two sides did not know how to talk to each other.  While the United States was in a hurry – just as it is now keen to bring a quick end to the Afghan war – the Taliban dithered, worried about their position inside Afghanistan. While the United States focused on international terrorism and the threat to its own people, the Taliban filtered its views through the prism of Islam.  Even today, it is hard to see how two such different entities – one a superpower, the other a relatively new and fragmented  movement – can talk to each other directly without an outside mediator, and a great deal of time and patience.

As for the present situation in Afghanistan, the authors argue that a settlement incorporating much of the Taliban movement is becoming harder and harder as the U.S.-led military campaign separates the leadership from new and younger fighters in the field. ”There are still possible interlocutors and options for discussions at the moment, but the veteran Taliban’s leverage over the chain of command is becoming increasingly limited, to a degree that significantly hampers their influence over all parts of the movement currently fighting, rendering the chance of forging a lasting peace more and more unlikely.”

Indeed, while the authors assert that “the supposedly unbreakable link” between the Taliban and al Qaeda was “the principal strategic blunder of the war”, they argue that younger fighters, with no memory of peace in Afghanistan, are now in fact more likely to be drawn towards al Qaeda and other militant groups.

“The new and younger generation of Afghan Taliban are more susceptible to approaches by foreign jihadist groups, including al Qaeda, causing an increasingly ideological shift in the conflict. This development, paired with an overall increase in suspicion among the Afghan population as to the United States and its ‘real intentions’, bodes ill for the future. Current policies … are a key factor driving the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda together…”

None of that is to suggest that talks are pointless, nor that they should not have been started in earnest much earlier.  But it does indicate that it will be incredibly difficult to reach a lasting peace agreement - and bear in mind, the more talk there is of a settlement with the Taliban, the greater is the incentive for their rivals and enemies to prepare for civil war, or for spoilers to try to sabotage the process. (To be fair, the United States and its allies have also been preparing for a situation in which there is no settlement by the end of 2014.)

And in the interests of keeping everyone honest, we should look out for any widening discrepancy between the U.S. domestic political need for a “quick fix” way out of Afghanistan, and the realities on the ground.

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“An Enemy We Created” is due to be released on January 18.

And among many good reports on a political settlement on Afghanistan, do also read this overall examination by the Afghan Analysts Network;  and from earlier last year, this report by The Century Foundation (pdf). For a more micro level look at the kind of compromises which might need to be made, read this report by Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco about how the Taliban have been allowing schools to operate in areas under their influence in return for the introduction of a more conservative curriculum.

(Reuters photo by Ahmad Masood)

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