Talking Our Way Out Of Afghanistan

NATO needs to negotiate with the Taliban NOW, before all the troops -- and our leverage -- are gone.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. officials have all but abandoned hope of achieving a peace settlement in Afghanistan before the bulk of foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014. That’s not as bad as it sounds. After all, the Geneva negotiations in the 1980s, which culminated in the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, lasted six years.

But it would be a serious mistake to give up on negotiations altogether. So long as NATO has substantial numbers of troops on the ground, it has leverage. The Taliban see those troops as their biggest threat, and withdrawal has long been the insurgents’ foremost demand. What’s more, the coalition has the ability to grant the Taliban a measure of international legitimacy, which the group craves.

The United States and its allies have a choice: They can withdraw unilaterally and squander their leverage, or they can engage with the Taliban and get something in return. They should use their influence to establish and structure a dialogue that could pave the way to a negotiated peace.

Despite the prevailing mood of pessimism, current conditions in Afghanistan favor talks. Coalition forces and Taliban insurgents are in what negotiation theorists call a "mutually hurting stalemate," meaning that neither side believes it can escalate to victory. In such circumstances — which existed between Soviet forces and the Afghan mujahideen in the mid- to late 1980s — leaders have incentives to negotiate because they are caught in costly deadlock and see limits to what they can gain from further fighting.

Some observers assume the Taliban have no real interest in talks because Western forces have already said they are leaving. Moreover, the Taliban remain a powerful force. They have a substantial operational presence in the south, southeast, east, and west of Afghanistan, maintain secure bases in Pakistan, and sustain a high tempo of attacks against Afghan and coalition forces. According to NATO, over the past five months insurgents have launched an average of around 100 attacks a day — significantly more than prior to the 2010 U.S. troop surge.

But the Taliban are fatigued and divided. Contacts I have had with the Taliban over the past three years indicate that many leaders are wary of hard-line insurgent factions and are uneasy about life after 2014. They expect a revival of anti-Taliban forces, bloody power struggles, U.S. drone strikes, resistance from communities, and international ostracism. They are looking for personal safety, political influence, and international recognition. They are prepared to fight — but would prefer not to.

Observers also tend to assume the Taliban would only settle for absolute power through the restoration of the Islamic Emirate, the fundamentalist theocracy they presided over in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Undoubtedly, some elements of the Taliban still have such ambitions, but there are also signs of pragmatism. In August, Taliban leader Mullah Omar said, "The Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power." In September, one of the Taliban’s negotiators in Qatar said publicly that their goal was not to revive the former Taliban administration but to form "an Islamic government participated in by all people, reflecting the aspirations of all Afghan people, of all ethnic groups."

These statements reflect a significant shift in Taliban public policy. It may or may not reflect their true position — which is difficult to discern given fissures in the group’s leadership and Taliban efforts to win public backing — but it at least suggests a dialogue is worth pursuing.

Why have attempts at dialogue failed so far? In March, talks between the United States and the Taliban stalled because of differences over what were intended to be demonstrations of good faith: the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar and a U.S.-Taliban prisoner exchange. The United States has insisted that the Taliban publicly disavow al Qaeda and engage with the Afghan government. The Taliban have so far refused to do either.

In effect, confidence-building measures are undermining confidence. But there is no reason talks should depend on the establishment of an insurgent representative office. Nor do they need to proceed publicly, through official statements and media briefings. In fact, at least in the early stages of talks, publicity is generally unhelpful because adversaries inevitably compete with one another to project an image of strength. This partly explains why little progress was made between Israel and the PLO at the highly publicized Madrid talks in 1991, whereas the parties’ secret talks in Oslo in 1993 culminated in a breakthrough.

The surest way to build trust is through confidential, multiparty talks without preconditions. For all intents and purposes, the Taliban have already disavowed al Qaeda. An April Taliban statement, which specifically addresses their relationship with the group, says, "We have no intention of causing harm to anyone, nor will we allow anyone else to use our soil against anyone else." The relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, moreover, is precisely the kind of issue that should be resolved in talks, rather than through premature public announcements.

As for the exclusion of Kabul, many Taliban leaders accept that they will eventually have to negotiate with Afghan officials. In fact, they have been quietly and informally talking to Afghan officials for years, albeit intermittently. Their concern is to avoid being seen to do so. Dropping the precondition relating to al Qaeda and, if necessary, facilitating shuttle or proximity talks might help connect the parties.

Confidential talks would also help address one of the biggest causes of mistrust between the parties: misperceptions. The United States and the Taliban, especially, are at fault for what political scientists call "attribution error." That is, each has tended to see its adversary’s actions as driven by intrinsic hostility, rather than situational factors. Each overlooks its own role in provoking the other’s behavior and downplays the possibility of legitimate motivations.

The United States and the Taliban have profoundly misunderstood each other. Insurgents have failed to appreciate the impact of the 9/11 attacks, the regime’s harboring of Osama bin Laden, and the security concerns that have driven the U.S. response. Few U.S. officials grasped the Taliban’s sense of exclusion and injustice or considered how U.S. forces could be seen as aggressors, given their role in causing civilian casualties and propping up a discredited regime.

Structured dialogue could help the various parties dismantle mutual misperceptions and acquire a better understanding of each other’s perspectives and motives. But given the deep-seated mistrust between them, as well as the complexity of the issues, it would be naive to think the parties could manage talks by themselves. Negotiation to resolve armed conflict virtually always requires some form of external mediation. It can help the parties establish a framework and road map for talks, which is sorely needed in Afghanistan. It also helps promote constructive dialogue and sustain momentum when talks break down. In fact, in the absence of mediation, it is remarkable that the talks lasted as long as they did.

The search for a mediator is long overdue. But who should be it? The simple answer is: any individual, organization, or state that has the confidence of the parties and is up to the task. Because the strength of any dialogue depends on buy-in from each of the major parties to the conflict, the participation of Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime host and supporter, is essential. But the nature and scope of Pakistan’s involvement requires consideration. Many would argue it should be limited to regional and security issues. But to exclude Pakistan completely would be to encourage it to act as a spoiler.

As the dialogue becomes more robust, it should expand to include representatives of Afghanistan’s central and northern political factions, the country’s wide range of social groups, and other states in the region. There are no guarantees that such talks will succeed. There are potential spoilers on all sides. The Taliban’s demands, especially in terms of justice or social affairs, may be irreconcilable with international standards or the aspirations of the Afghan people. But it is impossible to make that kind of determination until there is real dialogue. It is an endeavor that is overwhelmingly supported by Afghans — men and women — from across the country.

The longer it takes to establish such a process, the greater the likelihood that the Taliban will negotiate from a position of strength, having made battlefield gains against Afghan security forces. By then, it will be more difficult to secure Taliban commitments to curb extremists or to preserve advances in human rights that have been made since 2001. As the U.S. presence declines, so does U.S. leverage. The United States should waste no time in using its remaining influence to establish a dialogue that could ultimately bring peace to Afghanistan.

Matt Waldman is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House; he worked in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2012, including as a senior U.N. political officer.

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