The South Asia Channel

Talking to the Taliban

Last November, I provided testimony for the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which along with that of many others helped inform a report the committee issued on March 2, giving its view on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. It concluded that, "the US should not delay its significant involvement in talks with the Taliban leadership." ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Last November, I provided testimony for the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which along with that of many others helped inform a report the committee issued on March 2, giving its view on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. It concluded that, "the US should not delay its significant involvement in talks with the Taliban leadership." This report comes at a time when the newspapers are featuring more success stories in Afghanistan than they have for many years. ISAF generals claim with conviction that intensive operations in the country’s troubled Kandahar and Helmand provinces have dealt a serious blow to the Taliban. So the American reader might be wondering: why is the British Parliament proposing talks with the Taliban?

For one thing, those talks are already happening. New America Foundation President Steve Coll reported in the New Yorker on February 28 that the Obama administration had already entered into direct, secret talks with senior Taliban leaders. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Asia Society on February 18, called for the Taliban to break with al Qaeda — a statement that essentially reiterated a familiar U.S. position, but has been interpreted as a signal of increasing acceptance of a Taliban role in Afghanistan, as long as al Qaeda is kept out.

More broadly, though, the committee’s conclusions reflect the need for a broad political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan. While I had no role with the committee except as a witness to their inquiry, I agree with their conclusion that a political exit strategy is needed. The U.S. has, as the report says, a "rapidly closing window of opportunity" for a reconciliation process, and indeed for any kind of political stage-setting for a successful withdrawal of its forces from the front lines of fighting in 2014.

An exit strategy should not mean abandonment, nor should political reconciliation mean handing the country over to the Taliban. But facts must be faced: Over the next five years, Western military and economic support to Afghanistan is going to reduce dramatically, and it is wholly unclear that the country is ready to deal with the effects of more limited inputs. The Brookings Institution’s excellent Afghanistan Index is brutally depressing about the capacities of the Afghan security forces: attrition rates, meaning desertion, are around 3 percent per month meaning that about one-third drop out every year); no Afghan army unit is capable of fighting without U.S. elements being embedded among them; and even the best units lack the capability to operate without U.S. intelligence, logistical, and equipment support.

Yet by 2014 the Afghans are meant to take the lead in combat operations across the country. Whatever progress has been made in killing Taliban and disrupting their networks over the past six months, therefore, may be for nothing if the insurgency only needs to survive until U.S. forces leave. And despite the knocks that they have taken, the Taliban are still not out for the count: assassinations of political leaders, the Brookings index also tells us, increased fivefold from 2009 to 2010. And journalists in Ghazni and Khost have reported that the Taliban were operating openly in town centers in those provinces towards the end of 2010.

A U.S. military operation that is about to scale down therefore has the task of taking the Taliban from a situation where it operates openly in major towns, to one where it does not operate at all. Otherwise, if the Taliban can only survive until U.S. forces draw down, then they will be a presence in Afghanistan for many years to come. Afghan leaders, whoever they are, may well eventually make peace with them. The only question is when — and whether the West will have a say in the peace agreement that is reached.

Whatever kind of closed-door talks are happening — and they may well be aimed at persuading specific individuals to make their peace with the Afghan government, rather than achieving a broader political settlement — they are unlikely to end the insurgency. They can at least, however, establish a mechanism for communication between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with U.S. facilitation and buy-in. This mechanism could build trust, enable reciprocal humanitarian gestures, and be the basis for discussion of a ceasefire and perhaps a lasting peace. The United States has urged its own allies to adopt such mechanisms in the past, and (though it took time) it proved effective in Northern Ireland.

To be sure, the future of Afghanistan does not only have to do with reconciliation efforts. The question may not be only whether the Taliban accepts the Afghan Constitution, as Secretary Clinton said they must, but whether the Afghan president will do so himself. When his term ends in 2014, the Constitution says that he must step down. The United States is going to need to have a strategy to handle this situation, because almost every scenario has its dangers. If he leaves, who will replace him? If he stays, what credibility will the Constitution have?

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors — Iran, Pakistan, China, India, and Russia — need to be persuaded to play nice when the United States leaves, and support initiatives that will unite Afghanistan, rather than keeping it mired in war and instability. That’s easier said than done, but at least the ingredients exist for a mutually beneficial peace in the region.

Additionally, the U.S. military has not solved Afghanistan’s strategic problems, but it has learned from its own mistakes, improved its performance, and achieved some significant tactical successes that can inform the work that civilian agencies (State Department, USAID, the CIA, Coalition Embassies, the U.N., the NATO civilian representative, and so forth) do in the coming years. The most important is that just as it worked well to bring all U.S. forces under the ISAF commander, so likewise there ought to be one civilian visibly in charge of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan (who would, de facto, be leader of the international pack as well).

Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke came close to filling this role, but it probably ought to be a Kabul-based position, not Washington-based or shuttle diplomacy. It would resemble the ill-fated proposal to have UK politician Paddy Ashdown as a super-envoy, mooted back in 2007; but this time the nominee should be an American, and given a role more palatable to the Afghans — this new appointee’s job would not be to tell Karzai what to do, but instead to prepare the Afghan government for the challenge of fending, essentially, for itself.

This super-ambassador should read the committee’s report, in full. Among the gloomy but well-argued opinions expressed therein, he or she will find one theme that is more optimistic: A number of us who testified thought that the withdrawal of international forces might actually be good for the Afghans. That’s because the coalition’s presence and behavior is infantilizing the Afghan government, as former diplomat Rory Steward once described it. By doing almost all the fighting against the Taliban, providing a huge cushion of money that protects the Afghan government from the worst consequences of their own mistakes, and laying down the law on a wide range of policy and military issues, the international community is providing incentives and making it easy for Afghans to do nothing.

As one of the witnesses proposed, "we need to back off and give Afghans some space to work things out themselves." If the coalition’s departure is organized strategically, gradually, and in a manner that allows Afghans space, dignity, and some degree of confidence that the West has their backs, then it might reverse these incentives. And perhaps, to amend slightly Shakespeare’s words, there may be nothing that will become us in Afghanistan like the leaving it.

Gerard Russell is a research fellow on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Harvard Kennedy School and lived in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

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