Talking ‘Bout Negotiation

The five big reasons why critics say talks with the Taliban won’t work -- and why they’re wrong.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The Obama administration has embarked on a fresh effort to get allies back on board with the goal of talks leading to Taliban reconciliation, following the Taliban’s public acknowledgment of its willingness to negotiate. In a Jan. 3 statement, the Taliban indicated they would establish a political office in Qatar that will be used "to come to an understanding with other nations." Does this mark one of the most historic developments since the beginning of the war: the Taliban shedding its status as an insurgency and beginning its transformation into a state? In another statement issued Jan. 12, the Taliban reiterated its interest in increasing political efforts but added that this "does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration." So, which is it — talk or fight?

The Taliban’s contradictory words offer little assurance of its willingness to follow through on commitments made through formal negotiations. But we should not interpret official statements as signs of agreement; the Taliban continues to face internal discord over the war, with a pro-reconciliation faction often operating in conflict with those still seeking military victory. Expect more schizophrenic statements from both the Taliban who declared victory on Jan. 15 and the United States, as both sides feel pressure to show strong negotiating positions.

Likewise, the U.S. approach of "fight, talk, build," does not mean that the administration speaks with one voice. The tensions among American defense, intelligence, and diplomatic communities on the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate are well documented. At face value, the military’s reluctance to characterize Taliban intentions reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of its military campaign in Afghanistan. The risk-averse nature of the intelligence community often lends itself to the most conservative estimate possible — rendering any possibility of negotiation impossible. Meanwhile, diplomats believe political talks are the only solution. The United States policy community remains stuck in an ideological debate over the Taliban’s true identity: terrorist group, ideological movement, political entity, or insurgency? But time has run out for debates like this. Almost all parties, regardless of ideological bias or motivation, agree that talks are the only way out of Afghanistan.

If so, where do we go from here? How do we reconcile the major disagreements over reconciliation if it is the only way forward? There are five prominent and challenging reasons that officials and analysts use to say why negotiations can’t or shouldn’t work. Here’s why they’re wrong.

1. The Taliban have too much blood on their hands. Last week, Secretary Clinton acknowledged that the United States was considering transferring Guantanamo detainees to Qatar in exchange for talks with the Taliban. The deal would include former senior Taliban military commander Mullah Mohammed Fazl, implicated in mass sectarian killings prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. There’s no debate that the Taliban’s killing of Shiites is morally reprehensible. Furthermore, releasing a mass murderer to build trust for a peace process has been criticized by American analysts and Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Afghan and regional stakeholders. And that’s for someone who’s killed Afghans. The Taliban directly or indirectly killed more than 4,500 Americans.

According to the latest estimates from the Department of Defense, 1,761 members of the U.S. military died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion, as well as 2,819 Americans killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, which al Qaeda leadership planned from the comfort of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with." Feinstein’s remarks come on the heels of media reports on the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, which suggests little progress was made last year given the high number of casualties. Clinton would remind us that "you don’t negotiate with your friends." No one expects the United States will find immediate friendship from the likes of Mullah Fazl and other detainees if transferred, especially after years of confinement in Guantanamo. However, with death being the only constant of the past decade, we can only presume that they, like the United States, are looking for a way out of the fighting.

2.  The Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists. Before losing power in December 2001, the Taliban were notorious for their human rights abuses, based on an interpretation of Islamic law that condoned public executions, the cutting off of hands as punishment for theft, death sentences for adultery, and extreme abuses of women. The Taliban’s current position on these issues remains largely unknown — but suffice to say it’s probably not changed much.

So far, it appears that U.S.-Taliban exploratory discussions are not contingent upon commitments to human rights standards or changes in religious ideology, focusing instead on detainee transfers and the establishment of an office in Qatar. But the question of whether the Taliban are too fundamentalist or too bound by ideology will eventually affect reconciliation discussions: It’s clear that Afghan and U.S. stakeholders, not to mention domestic and international civil society, will not accept America negotiating with such a repressive organization. But the Taliban’s religious fundamentalism is not the war the U.S. has chosen to fight. The Obama administration maintains its policy that the basis of the conflict and the core goal of the U.S. "must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." There is no mention of Taliban ideology — religious or otherwise — so it should not be the basis of negotiations. The United States will have to find other ways, possibly after negotiations, to influence issues such as human rights that will continue to be important to its values as a country and a government. But for now, the Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalism is the straw man argument against reconciliation.

3. The Karzai problem. President Hamid Karzai’s inconsistent approach toward reconciliation continues to cause confusion, weaken confidence, and send the wrong messages. Even as the United States labeled its reconciliation policy as "Afghan-led" and announced its willingness to accept a Qatar-based Taliban office, Karzai voiced his opposition. Karzai’s efforts to engage Iran and India send mixed messages to the United States and Pakistan respectively, who respectively remain concerned about Iran and India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. Potentially most debilitating is the Taliban’s view of the Karzai government as a "puppet" administration.

Karzai’s government has not completely ignored the Taliban. It is known for its willingness to engage former Taliban officials and established the High Peace Council for reconciliation. But by playing all sides at once, Karzai has neutralized his own negotiating power. Why? Karzai fears that the United States and the Taliban will abandon him once both sides get what they want out of negotiations. His fear of irrelevance is further triggered by the lack of discussion on his future role. Karzai publicly stated his intention to step down at the conclusion of his term in 2014, but rumors abound that he is exploring measures to extend his time in power. He also cannot neglect the need to define and secure his political legacy and ensure his future safety and comfort, and that of his family. Karzai’s blessing will be critical for reconciliation; talks can feasibly move without him but not for long. The American side’s top reconciliation diplomat, Marc Grossman, drove this point home after meeting with Karzai this weekend in Afghanistan, emphasizing any formal peace talks would be between Afghans.

As long as Karzai’s in charge of Afghanistan, he will have a heavy hand in what reconciliation looks like. All interested parties — the Taliban, U.S., and even Afghanistan’s neighbors — will have to keep up their charm offensive with Karzai if they want talks to go anywhere.

4. The Taliban is in bed with Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan supported the Taliban. Its policy of support began during the second government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from 1993 to 1996. Bhutto tasked Interior Minister Gen. Nasirullah Babar with the responsibility of reopening routes to Central Asia through Afghanistan. Babar, credited as the "father of the Taliban," strengthened the Taliban movement with military, logistical, and technical support. In return, Pakistan’s access to routes through Afghanistan became cheaper and easier, and it viewed strong ties with the Taliban government as a sufficient hedge against Indian influence.

Years later, after the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban leadership finds itself comfortably living in the safe haven of Pakistan. Or does it? If conditions were so comfortable and their presence so openly tolerated, the Taliban could easily set up a political office in Quetta, say, instead of Qatar, and proceed with negotiations from there. But the move to Doha represents the first public indication of the Taliban’s true relationship with Pakistan — strategic and political but not ideological, a circumstance that ultimately allows for greater flexibility in reconciliation negotiations.

5. The Taliban will never break ties with al Qaeda. Those who think Taliban links to al Qaeda are too strong to be broken should know that Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996 at the invitation of a leader of the Northern Alliance — our (ahem) allies. Only after the Taliban assumed power did bin Laden develop an alliance with the fundamentalist government. For al Qaeda, the relationship with the Taliban is no more unique than its relations with other groups and individuals who benefit from offering the organization safe haven. They may agree ideologically on certain religious and political principles — both are Sunni-dominated groups who view the United States as an imperial force targeting Muslim countries. But after ten years of war, a clearly diminished al Qaeda leadership no longer offers the Taliban legitimacy for a potential return to Afghan political life. Rather, it is the United States, the Afghan government and people, and the international community.

The top five reasons for why reconciliation won’t work are rooted in the one big reason why the war couldn’t be won through military means: it was ideologically flawed. Reconciliation is going to be tough if we never agree on why we’re fighting the war in the first place. But critics of reconciliation are not just being disagreeable; in their defense, they are being realistic. Reconciliation will not show immediate results — it may take years, even decades. For many of the governments involved, especially the United States, the war in Afghanistan has been one of urgency, where they must show tangible results to justify their involvement to constituents back home. In this spirit, as the United States plans to send troops home, what better time than now to turn to reconciliation, especially as the current outlook on security does not offer anything more tangible or immediate by way of success.   

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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