Stephen M. Walt

Talking with the Taliban?

Should we talk to the Taliban or not? Hassani Sherjan says we shouldn’t, because they are “one of the most repressive organizations on earth.” For him, the key to success is “making changes at the community level.” In particular: The government and its allies can best weaken the insurgency by better protecting the population, organizing ...

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Should we talk to the Taliban or not? Hassani Sherjan says we shouldn’t, because they are “one of the most repressive organizations on earth.” For him, the key to success is “making changes at the community level.” In particular:

The government and its allies can best weaken the insurgency by better protecting the population, organizing local citizens’ groups to cooperate on economic development, and hiring more people from every part of the country into the growing Afghan Army and police force.”

But who’s going to pay for the massive increase in the Afghan army and police that he’s recommending (and that seems to be a key part of current U.S. plans)? Afghanistan’s economy has only two main sectors: opium cultivation and foreign assistance (comprising nearly 80 percent of Afghan GDP). We’re trying to eradicate the former (which means Afghans end up growing less lucrative crops), which will make it harder for the central government get sufficient revenues to support larger security forces. So where will they get them? Answer: from you and me and other folks in the “international community.” Given that the Afghan economy won’t have the resources to support all those hired guns for years (if ever), we are in effect making Afghanistan a permanent ward. According to William Byrd at the World Bank:

While there is a strong case for larger and more effective Afghan security forces, this will cost substantial amounts of additional money — roughly estimated at up to $2 billion per year. It is clear that Afghanistan will be unable to provide anywhere near this amount from its own revenues for many years — likely two decades — to come. Indeed, projections suggest that additional security sector expenditures at such levels will exceed the country’s entire domestic revenues (currently in the US$700 million range per annum) for more than a decade.”

That reality suggests that negotiations designed to probe Taliban intentions and to test their cohesion deserve a serious look. On that point, see Andrew Blandford’s discussion of the pros and cons of negotiations at the Harvard Negotiation Law Journal. He’s no idealist, and is obviously aware of the pitfalls of premature talks. But his bottom line is sharply at odds with Sherjan’s adamant rejection of any talks:

The U.S. must pursue numerous strategies if it is to fulfill its objectives in Afghanistan: it must convince Pakistan to increase its pressure on the Taliban in the tribal areas, compel NATO allies to dedicate more troops to Afghanistan, and build the capacity of the Afghan government to provide much-needed services to its people in order to lure them back from the appeal of authoritarian stability. These strategies are not alternatives to a negotiated agreement, but rather complements to negotiating with the reconcilables. Barring total victory for the U.S. over a pervasive, locally-based force, the question is not whether we will negotiate with the Taliban, but when, under what circumstances, and with which members? It may indeed be too soon to push for direct talks with the Taliban because the conditions are not yet ripe to negotiate an acceptable outcome for the U.S., and serious costs may result. But it is probably never too soon for indirect talks, in order to feel out the Taliban’s interests and seek a path to a ZOPA [zone of potential agreement] — all while striving to increase bargaining power by improving the U.S.’s BATNA [best alternative to no agreement] and decreasing the attractiveness of the Taliban’s BATNA.”

If Richard Holbrooke read the Times this morning, I hope he reads this, too.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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