The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Taliban reconciliation

AfPak Behind the Lines: Taliban reconciliation

The AfPak Channel is pleased to announce a new weekly feature, AfPak Behind the Lines, where we interview an expert on a hot topic in Afghanistan and Pakistan circles. Today, we speak with Thomas Ruttig about the prospects for reconciling and reintegrating militants of all levels with the Afghan government, as the U.S.’s new strategy for reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society continues.

1. Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence services who was either fired or let go earlier this month, has warned that Karzai’s reconciliation plan is dangerous and that the Taliban appear not to be showing any willingness to compromise. In brief, what are the specifics of Karzai’s plan? What aspects of it could be seen as "dangerous," and how does that affect the role the West can play in reconciliation efforts? What are the major sticking points between Karzai’s plan and what the U.S. would like to see happen?

President Karzai’s reconciliation plan has not been spelled out in detail yet. A draft of what had been called "Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program" had been presented to the donor countries at the London conference in January this year — but not to the peace jirga delegates — and got the green light. Interestingly, the word "reconciliation" — which is a code for "talks with the Taliban" — already had been dropped there. This indirectly reflects that there is incongruence between Karzai and the U.S. government about how to deal with the Taliban. Karzai probably wants to talk to the Taliban leadership, directly and rather soon — at least, this is what some of his Afghan critics believe. They fear that major achievements of the post-Taliban period, mainly rights and freedoms, might be thrown overboard if a hasty deal is made between the two sides. The Karzai government already has shown that it is more sensitive about what conservative sectors in the clergy — the so-called jihadi leaders — demand than what civil society is concerned about – remember the "Shia Personnel Law." The U.S., as far as I can see it, prefers to weaken the Taliban militarily first, so that they won’t negotiate from a position of strength. Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, however, did not really prove that this works.

Saleh’s resignation might have to do with all this. Politically, he belongs to the current which emerged from the former mujahedin Northern Alliance (NA). This current — represented by Karzai’s 2009 main rival at the elections, Dr. Abdullah — sees Karzai’s reconciliation approach with skepticism. It technically boycotted the peace jirga. (It did not use that word, though.) On one hand, this skepticism reflects concerns broader political and social circles share, like the organized women. On the other hand, the NA had not been known for a tendency toward power sharing and fears losing further influence if the Taliban joined a future government. Finally, if Thursday’s Guardian is right, Saleh also saw Karzai moving closer to Pakistan. The relations between the NA and Pakistan have "traditionally" been strained.

2. There has been a lot of discussion about how and whether to negotiate with militant leadership at the top, and how to reconcile Taliban footsoldiers at the bottom. What, if any, efforts are being made to reach out to which mid-level commanders, and how is the Afghan government approaching different factions of insurgents across the country?

I find the differentiation into "reintegration" (of low and mid-level Taliban) and "reconciliation" (talk to leaders who break their ties with al-Qaida) is artificial and not up to the realities. The Taliban have proven much more cohesive and more able to convey a political message than most other movements in Afghanistan’s last 30 years. That will make major breakaways very difficult. (And there never has been one.) A number of fighters might have joined for the money that is in it. But this is neither their only nor generally the major motive of the Taliban. They reject the current corrupt and inefficient government and fight what they see as a foreign occupation. This is shared by many Afghans, even those who do not sympathize with the Taliban. (Many of them are not so much against the presence of foreign troops and advisors but against how they dominate decision-making.) We should not believe our anti-terrorism psy-ops and understand that the Taliban are a political movement with political aims. Such a movement will compromise when serious talks are held. Some Taliban know that they cannot rule Afghanistan on their own. We heard this discussion amongst Taliban in 2008 and 2009, but the surge closed their ranks again.

3. In other conflicts, former insurgents have been integrated into "legitimate" security services after peace negotiations. Is there any discussion now of integrating Taliban fighters into Afghanistan’s police or army, and if so, do you think this kind of integration is feasible or desirable? What would need to happen in terms of reconciliation before a potential integration of Taliban into the armed services could take place?

Generally, it is good to integrate former insurgent fighters into the armed forced of the particular state. Afghanistan’s institutions, however, are weak. The Afghan National Police is full of former militia structures. This has never been understood (or had been neglected) by those in the West who designed police reform. But it was obvious: if a local police chief was sent to another duty station, he very often took "his" cars, "his" computers and "his" fighters with him. Those fighters are not loyal to Afghanistan, but to their commander whom they now since the anti-Soviet "jihad." If you integrate the Taliban — another militia — into such a police, more harm is added. Required are real reforms. But the international community has lost precious years and now also much of its influence on the Afghan leadership. There is a big question mark whether this still can be turned around. The minimum requirement is that we give a commitment to the Afghans that we stay — and also pay — for radical institutional reform but also change our attitudes. Many Afghans would support reforms, but not necessarily those in government.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He speaks Pashto and Dari.