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Talking to the Taliban

With Obama and Karzai meeting in Washington, and peace negotiations back on the table in Afghanistan, here's what to watch out for when sitting down with Islamic fundamentalists.

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

It was the summer of 2001, and I had a front-row seat to negotiations designed to convince the Taliban to build a more inclusive Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Islamist movement, which was in power and controlled 90 percent of the country, had agreed to mediation with segments of the armed opposition, which was still denying the movement total control over Afghanistan. Midlevel Taliban envoys walked across the front line to meet with Karim Khalili, a representative of the country’s Hazara minority and today Afghanistan’s vice president.

This was Hindu Kush mountain warfare. The Taliban and the opposition were camped in the administrative centers of adjoining districts. But it took a day’s hike to cross the mountain ridge in between. The white flag of the Taliban fluttered over their last check post, the green of the opposition over theirs. As a United Nations humanitarian coordinator, I required the cooperation of authorities on both sides to be able to move relief goods. In the process, I got to observe the sometimes subtle ways in which Afghans conducted their own wartime diplomacy — the way that commanders deliberately kept a discreet channel of communication open to the other side as a sort of insurance policy.

The Taliban came to the talks prepared. They calculated they might be able to persuade the main Hazara party to break from the rest of the anti-Taliban armed opposition alliance — divide and rule. The Taliban’s discreet diplomacy was thus aimed at co-opting the Hazaras to their side. They started by proposing prisoner releases as a confidence-building measure, arranging for Hazara representatives to visit the jails in Kabul and Kandahar to compile lists of prisoners to be released as part of a putative deal. To run the negotiations, the Taliban chose a former mujahideen commander from Maidan Shahr, a town that sits astride one of the routes from Kabul into the Hazara country. He was a veteran of the war against the Soviets, a figure well-known to the Hazara leadership who could appeal to the Hazaras as permanent neighbors rather than temporary enemies.

The process achieved a certain level of success and was still under way when the 9/11 attacks occurred, precipitating an international military campaign against the Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban envoys sought Khalili’s protection when their Islamic Emirate collapsed — in a sense they claimed on their insurance policy. In other words, the careful cultivation of links across the front line set some limits to the conflict and ensured that no one had to fight to the bitter end.

Over a decade later, negotiations with the Taliban are again in vogue. Of course, now the tables have turned. The Taliban have become the armed opposition to a government dominated by their former enemies, men such as Khalili. A bewildering cast of actors stands by, ready to guide the Taliban to the table in order to hash out the future of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw. The movement’s past history shows that it may indeed be possible to maneuver it to the negotiating table — but after that point, the real challenges begin.

The negotiation with Khalili was just one of many examples of the Taliban coming to the negotiation table in the movement’s 18-year history. On the positive side, the Taliban have negotiated and honored agreements. On the negative side, they also have a track record of ruthlessly using negotiation to gain tactical advantage, a convenient habit of referring all major issues to an inaccessible supreme leader, and an uncompromising espousal of maximalist demands. The Taliban self-image is one of toughness and directness, but their critics say they are tricky interlocutors. Negotiations with the Taliban at this point, therefore, promise to be a long, hard slog.

Most of the Taliban’s experience in negotiations is with fellow Afghans. Throughout the 1990s, the movement frequently approached Afghan mediators to broker deals with mujahideen factions. The Taliban tended to see such political actions as complementary to their war aims. Much of the movement’s original expansion across Afghanistan was achieved not by outright military assaults but by co-option and negotiation. Simply put, it persuaded opposing commanders to come over or step aside. This prowess in employing negotiating feints alongside a military campaign is an important part of the Taliban heritage.

One mediator described to me three occasions on which he agreed to mediate but eventually concluded that the Taliban had only proposed negotiations as a delaying tactic before their next military operation. In the Taliban army’s initial push toward Kabul in 1995, it was halted at Maidan Shahr — and so asked for mediation to broker a deal with the hard-line mujahideen faction Hezb-i-Islami. After preliminary discussions, the sides agreed that envoys should proceed to Kandahar to meet Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader. But that’s where talks ended: The Taliban’s forces advanced before the envoys could reach Kandahar, and the frustrated peacemakers were turned away with excuses.

The Taliban’s most notorious Machiavellian negotiation came in the next stage of their 1995 offensive, with Khalili’s predecessor, Abdul Ali Mazari, as leader of the important Hezb-e-Wahdat political-military group. They ostensibly agreed to an alliance against Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military strongman who held central Kabul. The mediator described the bargaining inside the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, where the consul agreed to advise Mazari to accept the deal in return for security assurances. The consul’s advice would prove fatal. As soon as the Taliban took over the Hazara positions, it reneged on the deal, arresting Mazari and then having him killed. Anyone cutting a deal between today’s Afghan factions would be well-advised to include safeguards against such double-crossing.

During their period in power, the Taliban also gained experience in negotiating with the international community. Most encounters concerned humanitarian issues, and the Taliban could be both business-like and cordial in these dealings. I recall traveling to Kandahar in 2000 to seek guarantees of humanitarian access from Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Muttawakil was a lightly built man with a disarming smile framed by his prim silk-white turban and de rigueur scrappy beard. He received us in the official guesthouse with courtesy and good humor. While promising to support U.N. humanitarian operations, he quipped that, as the Taliban had helped their other foreign guest so much, they were honor-bound to help the United Nations. It suddenly struck me that the top Taliban diplomat had just joked about their sanctuary for Osama bin Laden.

On another occasion I had to put similar requests for humanitarian access to the Taliban’s deputy intelligence director, Abdul Haq Wasiq. He was down to earth, with no pomp or protocol. He heard me out, stated his considerations, and gave a clear statement of support. Given that the Taliban have been alternately demonized and romanticized, it is worth recalling that a decade ago they maintained a functional relationship with a range of international counterparts. Working in the Taliban’s Afghanistan was challenging — but not impossible.

In contrast to the intelligence chief’s unassuming style, the Taliban at times adopted a much more formal, ritualized, and even legalistic approach to negotiation on major humanitarian issues. In 2000, the movement’s representatives haggled clause by clause through a negotiation of the "U.N. protocol," which was meant to set the terms under which international organizations would operate in Afghanistan. Their goal in this negotiation was to tighten their control over international agencies.

As the price for granting operating permission, the Taliban made it look as if the international community was dealing with the movement as a legitimate government, though only three regional powers formally recognized it. Pomp was the Taliban’s secret weapon in negotiations. Protocol officers whisked U.N. envoys around in Foreign Ministry Mercedes-Benz limos and sat them down in plush conference rooms. These were all the optics of legitimacy. Meanwhile, Taliban Justice Minister Nuruddin Turabi churned out a series of social restrictions, such as the ban on women driving. The Taliban asserted that their protocol with the United Nations obliged aid agency staff to abide by these regulations of the Islamic Emirate, thus hammering home that the United Nations had to accept the Taliban’s authority in areas they controlled.

The negotiations on major humanitarian issues such as the protocol, nevertheless, produced workable agreements. On political topics, however, the Taliban proved much more intransigent. For instance, I heard the tales of a series of envoys who tried to negotiate a reprieve for the Bamiyan Buddhas. These two 170-foot-high statues, dating from the sixth century, symbolized Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage. By giving demolition orders for the "idols," the Taliban leadership was both able to assert its puritan Islamist credentials and defy an international community that was bound to protest.

The diplomats were like so many champions being sent out to face an invincible dragon. First, a troika of ambassadors from Islamabad flew into Kabul to petition the foreign minister over reports that the Taliban had destroyed smaller idols in the Kabul Museum. Muttawakil was as charming as ever. But he had been deputed to stonewall rather than negotiate. In classic Taliban style, he invoked a "higher authority," claiming that he would have to seek permission for the diplomats to visit the museum.

The trip to the museum was never to be. After a few days of pleasantries, the Taliban published an edict by Mullah Omar sanctioning the destruction of idols. The concentration of authority in the person of the self-styled "Amir-ul-Momineen" (Leader of the Faithful) meant that his pronouncement left no room for debate. As the focus turned to the Bamiyan Buddhas, Arab, Japanese, and UNESCO envoys headed to Kandahar to suggest compromises to the leadership. They, too, faced polite stonewalling. Negotiations offered a futile distraction while the movement moved inexorably toward demolition of the Buddhas.

Engagement on the issue of al Qaeda and the U.S. demand for extradition of bin Laden was equally fruitless. This decision came straight from the top: Mullah Omar had cast in his lot with bin Laden, so none of his negotiators had any authority to deal. The Taliban seemed to engage more seriously in a political process during the U.N.-brokered peace talks with their domestic rivals. The Taliban designated a senior leader as envoy and worked through some of the details of what a joint administration might look like. But they could not be budged on the bottom line: The Taliban insisted — and continue to insist — that the opposition recognize the authority of the Islamic Emirate. Needless to say, bowing to Mullah Omar continues to be a non-starter for the Taliban’s enemies.

In the decade that the Taliban have been an armed insurgent group, various bits of the international community have had many contacts with the movement, but few of these have involved formal negotiation. The main recent experience of peace talks with the Taliban has concerned the dealings over their mooted representational office in Qatar. Over the past year, this process has been tantalizing as the Taliban have held back from inking an agreement, which was drafted in early 2012, to release prisoners and open the office.

The Taliban’s previous experience with negotiation is likely to define the tool kit they draw on in future political engagements. But if the movement does embrace a more political struggle, it will have to cope with changes not only among its rivals, but within its own organization. Although Mullah Omar is still recognized as supreme leader, the movement now includes both the veterans of the struggles in the 1990s and the young men who have been mobilized in the years of war against the United States. Additionally, the majority of those who originally supported Mullah Omar in the early days of his movement are now dead or estranged. And in terms of external influences, the leadership’s years of clandestine struggle from Pakistan and fundraising in the Middle East may well have increased the influence of jihadi and Pakistani intelligence agencies over its strategy.

When embarking on talks with the Taliban, international players should know that a willingness to talk has not always meant an intention to settle. There is no shortage of examples of the Taliban negotiating to play for time, co-opt their rivals, or assert their legitimacy. A Taliban decision to negotiate in good faith toward a resolution of the outstanding issues with fellow Afghans and the international community will require the movement to make a strategic shift.

The most fundamental challenge confronting both the Taliban and those across the table from them will concern how to finesse the movement’s maximalist bottom line. Despite reassuring hints to the contrary, the Taliban can be expected to go into negotiations demanding a restoration of the Islamic Emirate, with Mullah Omar as its head. These are demands that the other Afghan parties and the international community will not contemplate, let alone concede.

All is not lost — clever mediators have solved more intractable problems than this. But reaching agreement will require proactive mediation and a lot of hand-holding as the Taliban debates making the required strategic shifts. Nothing will be solved by simply naming the date, choosing a venue, and drawing up the agenda. On the bright side, however, if the Taliban decide to come to the table, they will be able to draw on a history that has some positive examples of the give-and-take required for fruitful negotiations.

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