Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History?


2013-07-09 by Richard Weitz

After many months of false starts and shattered hopes, the official Afghan Peace talks may finally begin in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban opposition has established a quasi-official presence.

But a recently published study, “Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?” should again remind us that the likelihood of the Afghan and Western government representatives negotiating a sustained peace deal with the Taliban remains small.

The New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program held an event recently with some of the authors and other experts on the history of talks with the Taliban and the prospects of success for the latest round.

Discussants included Amb. Omar Samad, Senior Central Asia Fellow, National Security Studies Program, New America Foundation; Ryan Evans, Assistant Director, Center for the National Interest, and Co-author, Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History?; Peter Neumann, Director, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, Co-author, Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History?; and Ben Connable, an International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation.

The authors of the monograph undertook a comprehensive study of the almost three decades’ worth of negotiations with the Afghan resistance movements, reviewing the Soviet-era talks with the Mujahedeen guerrillas as well as the Western and Afghan government negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, which became a major force in Afghan politics in the late 1990s and remains the main threat to the Western-backed Kabul government.

Although generalizing lessons from history is always precarious since two situations are never identical. If nothing else the actors in the later period can see what happened earlier, which can change their calculations. But one obvious pattern that jumps out at the reader of the ICSR study is that none of these negotiations ever yielded a peace agreement. The authors suggest some insightful reasons why this might be the case.

The authors believe that those groups seeking to negotiate with the insurgents constantly do so for diverse reasons, which allows the Afghan resistance to manipulate these differences for their own ends.

Some advocates of talks genuinely aspire to achieve a lasting peace agreement, whereas others aim simply to divide and weaken the guerrillas by inducing some of their members to leave the battlefield.

Some see negotiations as a “silver bullet” that could rid themselves of the Afghan albatross. An increasingly large group now back talking with the insurgents in principle simply because they have not been able to achieve a military victory and can’t think of a better alternative. Neither of these two groups has really thought beyond the process to the desired outcome of any negotiations.

The unending turnover among foreign diplomats and military commanders complicates this process further by constantly imparting new perspectives and often positions into the talks. For example, an influential senior American diplomat or military commander who favors peace talks can be replaced by a staunch opponent of negotiations. Their subordinates and colleagues then must alter their own stances, to the frustration of other interlocutors.

The Taliban have been skilled at inducing these groups to compete with each other, at picking and choosing which of the parts of the proffered deals they find most appealing, at forum shopping (using one negotiating venue or process, then another that looks more attractive) as well as having different Taliban representatives communicate targeted but conflicting messages to their different opponents.

In retrospect, the Taliban’s interlocutors might have achieved superior results if they had managed their differences better and agreed on a common negotiating position.

The Taliban open negotiations with an attack on the Afghan presidential palace in late June 2013. Credit Photo: Reuters: Omar Sobhani

This could have involved various fallback options that all the counterinsurgent leaders would accept as part of a shared strategic rationale for what the negotiations might obtain.

In terms of tactics, those in charge of the counterinsurgency regularly believe that they must continue to pressure the insurgents with military force to induce them to negotiate a peace settlement. This may be the case, but it has also encouraged the insurgents to pursue the same “talk-fight” strategy, which results in many casualties among both sides as well as the Afghan civilians caught in the middle.

One sees constant “wishful thinking” about the prospects of a successful peace agreement. This manifests itself in the recurring belief that a “moderate” faction of insurgent leaders is prepared to negotiate a successful agreement. But in the case of the Taliban, there is no concrete evidence that a powerful peace faction has ever been present in the movement. Instead, the Afghan insurgents have purged, and often killed, any of their leaders who defect or otherwise seem overly eager to reach a genuine peace deal with the Afghan government.

In some cases, the Pakistani authorities have intervened to detain or otherwise impede Taliban leaders seeking peace with the Kabul government. The ICSR authors believe that Western governments repeatedly underestimate the importance of securing Islamabad’s backing for any negotiations. Influential groups in the Pakistani government dispose of numerous Afghan proxies that they can induce and empower to disrupt any peace process as well as wreak havoc inside Afghanistan. Many in Islamabad see Afghanistan as a chessboard where Pakistan and India jockey for influence.

The ICSR authors propose that the Afghan government and its foreign backers agree to limit India’s security presence in Afghanistan in order to calm Pakistani anxieties—an interesting but probably unrealizable recommendation given that the Afghan and U.S. governments want India to increase its non-military role in Afghanistan to compensate for the declining Western aid flows to that country.

Conversely, another critical component to any just piece whose views are regularly shunted is the Afghan government.

Both the Mujahedeen and the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the contemporary governments in Kabul, dismissing them as foreign puppets rather than legitimate peace partners. Current President Hamid Karzai reacts by being difficult—making concessions and favorable comments to the Taliban to get them to talk to him, seeking alternative peace paths that do not pan out, and attacking the United States for seemingly selling him out in a rush to exit the fight.

At present, the main factor imparting momentum to the peace talks is the impending drawdown of Western combat troops at the end of next year. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan recently announced the transfer of the lead combat role in the entire country to the Afghan National Security Forces.

Although the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police have made considerable progress in recent years, they lack critical enabling capabilities such as airpower and logistics.

The skills of senior commanders and loyalty of the foot soldiers is still suspect. Meanwhile, the Taliban leaders think that their negotiating position and prospects for outright military victory can only improve over time, while other actors like Pakistan are making the same assessment.

For the way ahead with regard to airpower transition in Afghanistan, see the following: