The South Asia Channel

A Taliban ‘Rope-a-Dope’ Strategy?

The on-again, off-again effort by the Obama administration to begin preliminary peace talks with the Taliban is still struggling to get off the ground. The first move focuses on a statement by the Taliban against international terrorism and in support of a peace process and the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar.  For this ...

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

The on-again, off-again effort by the Obama administration to begin preliminary peace talks with the Taliban is still struggling to get off the ground. The first move focuses on a statement by the Taliban against international terrorism and in support of a peace process and the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar.  For this the Taliban have called for the release of its prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.

To garner support for this initiative, the administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman, has been traveling in the region, including meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to make sure he is on board. Afghan officials have expressed concern about the possibility of a ‘secret deal’ being struck between the Taliban and the U.S.

But that would be unlikely, given the administration’s oft-repeated public assurance that it supports an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" reconciliation process.  In fact, what is more likely than a ‘secret deal’ is no deal at all.

Earlier high-level efforts by the U.S. government to have ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban may be instructive.  As Winston Churchill said: "The further back you look, the farther forward you can see."

The Taliban history of negotiating with its opponents reveals little reason for optimism. Striking a deal with its sworn enemies does not appear to be in the Taliban’s DNA. Instead, past experience suggests it has adopted the negotiating equivalent of the "rope-a-dope’ strategy in boxing — agreeing to enter the ring, playing for time, evading and avoiding committing itself, letting the opponent wear himself out, then hitting back hard as it had intended to do all the time.

In April 1998, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson traveled to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, in order to bring them to the table to discuss the possibilities for peace. He also tried to persuade the Taliban either to expel Osama bin Laden or extradite him to the U.S. for his complicity in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. 

In his memoir Between Worlds, Richardson described the outcome: "Flying back to Pakistan that night, I thought, Well, this was a good day’s work. Peace talks would get started later in the month, and if they went well, we might get bin Laden after all.  But it wasn’t to be. The agreement held for a while, but we quickly learned that the Taliban had no intention of making peace with the Northern Alliance. By early May, a belated spring offensive had begun and the two sides were at it again."

In February 1999 there was another attempt at direct talks with the Taliban.  After the bin Laden-directed bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, I traveled to Islamabad with the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism, Michael Sheehan, to meet with Mullah Abdul Jalil, a close adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar (from 1997-2001 I attended some 20 meetings with Taliban officials). The U.S. government had repeatedly demanded that the Taliban stop giving safe haven to terrorists. Now we told Jalil that the U.S. would hold the Taliban itself directly responsible for bin Laden’s actions, and respond accordingly.

Mullah Jalil said that bin Laden was becoming a burden on Afghanistan, but that he was under the Taliban’s control and he could not possibly be operating a worldwide network as we suggested. Later efforts were made to provide the Taliban with more information about the U.S. case against bin Laden, but they never responded.

Subsequently the UN Security Council tried to persuade the Taliban to turn over bin Laden.  Two resolutions were adopted, and sanctions were imposed, but, again, the Taliban defied these calls by the international community. On a scale of one to ten on good faith negotiations, the Taliban proved to be a zero.

Are the Taliban likely to be any more accommodating today, specifically the Quetta Shura faction still led by Mullah Omar? Recent statements issued by the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" on January 3 and January 12 suggest not. That was the name the Taliban gave Afghanistan during its rule from 1996 to 2001. The international community never recognized it. The Taliban still stick to it.

Taken together, these statements lay out the Taliban’s ‘going in’ position for peace talks, including the departure of all U.S. and foreign forces and a continuation of their "jihad" until that goal is accomplished. Also, the movement remains at least in rhetoric opposed to negotiations with the Karzai government (referred to as "the stooge Kabul administration") as well as acceptance of the Afghan constitution.

Administration officials say that while they are under no illusion about the chances of success in opening direct talks with the Taliban, they are convinced that a political settlement is the only solution to the war. But they also need to be convinced that the Taliban is serious about a future for Afghanistan that is not a return to the days of the "Islamic Emirate." 

In this regard, several probing questions need to be asked of Taliban representatives during what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says is "still in the preliminary stages of testing whether [talks] can be successful":

  • Do the Taliban accept a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, and what is their vision of it?
  • Do the Taliban have a political and economic plan for the future of Afghanistan?
  • Will they accept the international instruments to which Afghanistan has acceded, particularly with regard to human rights?
  • Will they honor and enforce the rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups?
  • Will they respect the role of shuras (tribal councils): local, provincial and national?
  • Are they willing to support and abide by internationally acceptable mechanisms of legitimization, like elections, referendums or tribal consensus?

During the years of repressive Taliban rule, none of these questions could have been answered in the affirmative. Can they be today? 

And, more importantly, what concrete steps can be taken by the Taliban to demonstrate that they will abide by their declarations and assurances in the future?  A good, measureable place to start for the Taliban to establish their bona fides would be an end to all suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Other confidence building measures would need to follow.

Another quote by Winston Churchill that relates to opening up direct talks with the Taliban is one of his most famous: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." It is axiomatic at this point that the conflict in Afghanistan will not end by military means alone. And the search for a political settlement must reach out to all parties — but with eyes wide open.

Karl F. Inderfurth is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  He served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration (1997-2001).

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