Two to Tango

David Miliband has a plan for bringing both sides to the negotiating table in Afghanistan. But getting the Taliban to show up won't be easy.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There’s a lot of talk in various world capitals right now about the need for an Afghan peace deal. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently declared that the war in Afghanistan can’t be won by military means alone — and in so doing she was echoing the words of senior U.S. military men, including International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. David Petraeus. Officials in Ankara are floating the notion of allowing the Taliban to open an office in Turkey that would give them an official "address" for talks. And in Kabul itself, Hamid Karzai’s government seizes every opportunity to reiterate its willingness to negotiate.

There’s just one small catch: Where are the Taliban?

The latest voice to join the campaign for peace belongs to ex-British foreign minister David Miliband; he’s still a Labour Party member of Parliament. He’s pushing for what he calls a "comprehensive political settlement" to end the war. And he doesn’t think that this should be left to the Americans to negotiate alone. He would like to see a United Nations mediator empowered to supervise an overarching process that would allow for the active participation of all the Afghan parties, including the Taliban — which would also include a mechanism for discussing the legitimate interests of regional powers.

Clinton, he told me a few days ago, was on the right track a few weeks ago when she spoke of the need to devote as much energy to the civilian and diplomatic components of the Afghan equation as the military one. But Miliband would prefer to take it a step further: "My own view is that a political framework doesn’t just sit alongside a military effort and development effort." In fact, he said, a political settlement should be the point of the whole exercise. Everything else should be designed with this endgame in mind.

Sounds great. Yet what all this presupposes is that the Taliban are actually interested in peace to begin with. Now, it’s certainly true that there are many intriguing signs that the insurgents are fed up with fighting. Just two days ago, for example, 50 militants surrendered to the government in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, saying that they’d had enough. The Kabul government claims that thousands of former guerrillas have already laid down their arms within the framework of the reconciliation process. Reporters in the field seem to have no trouble finding rank-and-file Taliban who say they just want the war to end.

Yet Afghans have been saying they are sick of the warfare in their country almost from the moment it started in 1978. If combat fatigue were the criterion by which we measure the imminence of peace, the conflict should have been over a long time ago. But there still seem to be plenty of Taliban willing to fight — and even to blow themselves up in suicide attacks. (The Taliban claimed responsibility for one that killed six last week near Kandahar, for example.) And why should they stop? The United States and NATO have declared that they’ll be withdrawing their forces by 2014. If the Taliban want to achieve their oft-stated goal of driving all foreign forces out of the country, all they have to do is sit back and wait. But that doesn’t seem to have diminished their motivation to keep killing people. Perhaps three years doesn’t seem that long measured against the past 33 years of war.

Nor are the Taliban completely mysterious about their intentions. The lower ranks might be demoralized, but if the ever-proliferating websites of their leadership are any indication, the message is fairly clear: Foreign troops have to go, outside influences must be purged, and the current Afghan Constitution (regarded as insufficiently Islamic) is anathema. Asked whether the Taliban really appear willing to talk, Miliband responds with corresponding nuance: "I think that the truth is that there are signals in both directions," he says. "There are signals both of truculence and refusal to recognize reality. There are signals also of the desire to bring the war to an end." But Miliband notes the only way we can obtain clarity is for the current Afghan government and the international community to announce their own vision of what a settlement would look like — complete with "red lines" on security, renunciation of ties with al Qaeda, and protection of basic human rights. "Until we clarify our own endgame, I don’t think we’ll see what the Taliban endgame is."

It’s worth a try. So is naming a U.N. mediator, preferably from a Muslim country. It is to his credit that Miliband avoids mentioning specific candidates for the job. Some experts have been bruiting about the name of veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who held a similar post back in the 1990s but is remembered by Afghans mainly for his failure to prevent civil war from breaking out among the mujahideen.

But do the Taliban really have as much respect for the United Nations as Miliband seems to think they do? After all, it looks increasingly as though the recent massacre of U.N. staffers in Mazar-e-Sharif was aided and abetted by local Taliban. There are few jihadists in the world — and surely the Taliban fit that description — who see the United Nations as anything but a Western-dominated organization designed to promote U.S. and European hegemony. It’s hard to imagine why the Taliban would think any differently.

Miliband is right to stress that all Afghan groups should participate in the discussions — including those whose memory of the excesses of Taliban rule make them leery of talks with those insurgents. This is much too important a task for it to be left solely to the Karzai government — which sometimes seems a bit too eager to embrace the Taliban as "brothers" without much in the way of reciprocal concessions.

It also makes sense to follow up on the Turkish initiative to provide Taliban representatives with a secure venue for diplomatic contacts — as well as any comparable efforts by other countries in the Muslim world. (Again not naming names, Miliband speaks merely of the need to provide "safe places for all sides to conduct confidential discussions" with the U.N. mediator.) And yes, the interests of regional powers will have to be taken into account insofar as that can be done without compromising Afghan sovereignty. Pakistan, obviously, is the tallest order here. It will be difficult, but it’s not altogether impossible.

Finally there’s the tricky question of the Taliban’s relationship to al Qaeda and other hard-core jihadi groups. Miliband insists that they’re separate organizations with separate agendas, "one of which is committed overall to a view of Afghanistan’s future, the other of which is committed to global jihad." Their alliance, he says, was a "marriage of convenience," and the Taliban now realize just what a liability al Qaeda has become for them. The question, he says, is whether the "irreconcilables" can be pried apart from those who are ready for some sort of compromise (which, of course, is not even to mention the problem of weeding out potential impostors from genuine Taliban representatives).

Miliband might be a bit too sanguine here. Although there are many indications that the Taliban have a more local agenda than Osama bin Laden and his ilk, there is also plenty of evidence that the long years of war have radicalized (and internationalized) the outlook of broad swaths of the Taliban and their affiliated organizations. But Miliband is right when he says that one way for the international community to find out where the Taliban stand is by formulating a coherent statement of their demands as a prelude for negotiations. I am much less confident than he is that we will find the response to our liking. At this point, though, it doesn’t look like we have much of an alternative.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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