Start beating the Taliban, then talk

Start beating the Taliban, then talk

By Christian Brose

Should we talk to the Taliban? Not the hardened zealots, but the so-called "reconcilables" who have become insurgents for purely practical reasons and may be led just the same to switch sides. The prevailing wisdom is, yes, we should, and that doing so in some form or fashion is a prerequisite for defeating the insurgency — an argument made in President Obama’s Af-Pak strategy. Hassina Sherjan makes a smart case against this line of thinking in today’s New York Times, which Steve Walt picks up on and takes issue with.

But if you really want to read the most thorough and nuanced study of this question currently on offer, check out Ashley Tellis’s fantastic new monograph, "Reconciling with the Taliban?" Ashley’s bottom line is "yes, but" — with a big emphasis on "but":

If conciliation offered an honorable exit from the conflict, it would be one thing. But it does not…. Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership have decisively rejected any reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan. And the tribal chiefs, village elders, and street fighters, who either support the insurgency or are sitting on the sidelines currently but are susceptible to being reconciled in principle, certainly will not take any steps in that direction so long as the Karzai regime, and its Western supporters, are not seen to be winning in their long-running battle against the Taliban. The coalition, therefore, is confronted by an inescapable paradox: any meaningful accommodation with those reconcilable segments of the rebellion will only come at the tail end of political-military success in Afghanistan and not as a precursor to it; yet, if such success is attained, reconciliation will become possible but, ironically, when it is least necessary.

For a similar take that leans more toward talking sooner, check out Dan Byman’s new article in the Washington Quarterly on whether, how, and when to talk to insurgents. Here’s his take on the dangers of talking at the wrong times and in the wrong ways:

Talks are not cheap. They often fail and can even backfire. Talks provide legitimacy to the other side, a concession that some insurgent groups desperately seek. Talks may discredit those who have long called for peace, rewarding the use of violence. At times, cynical insurgent groups simply use the lull in fighting to rearm and regroup, becoming more deadly as a result of the negotiations. When done unilaterally, talks may also anger allies, who may be unable to negotiate for political reasons. Moreover, talks and the use of force usually go together rather than being seen as alternatives. As a result, insurgent groups are more likely to negotiate if they believe they have little chance of success on the battlefield.

And here is Byman’s specific prescription for Afghanistan:

Today, the conditions for talks are acceptable but not ideal. In recent years, the insurgents have been growing in strength. While outright victory remains far off, they are not negotiating from a position of weakness. Some may even believe that an ultimate battlefield victory is a question of time. In order to convince some aspects of the insurgency to truly embrace negotiations, military progress, therefore, is necessary.

Ultimately, I’m more with Tellis than Byman: hold off on talks now, create greater conditions of success, and then peel the reconcilables away from the insurgency from a position of strength. It’s Human Psychology 101: If the Taliban believes that it’s getting everything it wants through violence, and that eventually it will win a decisive victory over the Afghan government and its coalition supporters, it has no incentive to stop fighting, and certainly no reason to compromise on terms that would be at all desirable to us or our Afghan partners. And this is exactly the position the Taliban sees itself in today. Anne Stenerson over at Jihadica reads it right:

According to the Taliban, the solution is equally simple: Expel the "occupiers" first, and talk politics later. For those who have followed Taliban’s official propaganda this is not very surprising. Ever since the start of the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s leadership has, at least officially, consistently refused to make any kind of compromises with the Afghan regime, let alone taking part in the democratic process.

So we and our coalition need to provide the Taliban with an incentive to stop fighting. We need to shift the correlation of forces on the battlefield in our favor. In short, we need to start winning.