Posted: November 14, 2008
Questions Linger Over Engaging Taliban in Afghanistan
Members of Afghanistan's government recently met with former leaders of the Taliban and representatives of one militant leader, stirring questions over whether such talks could help improve the country's security situation -- and whether they should be taking place at all. Dan Sagalyn, NewsHour deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense, explains in this Reporter's Podcast.
DAN SAGALYN, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: As President-elect Barack Obama promises to usher in a new era of American diplomacy, there is new talk -- about talking with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But such talk comes amid considerable skepticism that negotiations are the magic bullet to turn the deteriorating situation around in that country.
In late September, Afghan government officials met with former leaders of the Taliban government in Saudi Arabia. Also present was a representative of Gulbuiddin Hekmatyar. He's an Afghan veteran of the war against the Soviet Union who is now leading insurgent attacks against the U.S. and Afghan government.
This approach was recently endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus, now the commander of military forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan: Clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as possible while then identifying those who truly are irreconcilable. In Afghanistan, in fact, actually, they're already doing that. You saw that there's some outreach by President Karzai, apparently through Saudi Arabia.
If there are people that are willing to reconcile, then I think certainly that that would be a positive step in some of these areas that have actually been spiraling downward.
DAN SAGALYN: But Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, cautions against expecting too much from this one meeting. He says that it was unclear whom the former Taliban leaders were representing. And even those attending on behalf of the Afghan government didn't have clear instructions.
SAID JAWAD, Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington: Frankly, there has been a lot of talk about talking with the Taliban but not much substance to it. The meeting and dinner in Saudi Arabia was not truly a breakthrough.
The deliverables on both sides were not defined, and it was a casual meeting. And those who claim to be speaking on behalf of the Taliban, their mandate was not clear. Those who went on the side of the government including members of the parliament and personal representative of the president, their mandate and scope of the discussions what the lines would be, none of them were defined.
It is good these kinds of discussions have been elevated to a new stage but it is a continuation of what's been taking place. And it will be a long process.
DAN SAGALYN: Barnet Rubin agrees it could take a long time before anything comes of these talks. He's the director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.
BARNET RUBIN, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University: It's not very far along at all. There are no real negotiations going on, and I would say now there's just indirect dialog about the possibility of negotiations. There's a lot of what I would call positive atmospherics about it.
DAN SAGALYN: But Rubin emphasizes what's new about the Saudi Arabia dialog is that it focused on the senior leaders of those who are warring against Afghanistan.
BARNET RUBIN: What they had in the past was a program under which individual fighters could be reintegrated in some kind of reintegration package. They also had some mostly intelligence-led efforts to try to turn the loyalty of specific commanders. This is as far as I know the first time that there's a serious attempt to have a political dialog with the leadership of various elements of the insurgency.
DAN SAGALYN: Rubin says the enemy is not a monolithic entity. And that it's necessary to engage insurgents at different levels.
BARNET RUBIN: What you are talking about is an insurgency which is not centrally controlled by one organization. Although there is a leadership of the Taliban, which does have a great deal of influence over much of the insurgency. The question is are they willing to distance themselves sufficiently from al-Qaida. Now, there are some preliminary discussions indirectly going on with them through intermediaries. The prospects for integrating a significant portion of the insurgents into the government, or into a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, is quite good.
DAN SAGALYN: But a number of other analysts are dubious about the prospects of successfully negotiating with the top insurgency leaders. Bruce Riedel is a former CIA official. He's now with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His new book is "The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future."
BRUCE RIEDEL, former CIA official: The Taliban feel that momentum is on their side right now in the war in Afghanistan. And every statistical measure of the conflict would suggest that that is correct. The rate of attacks is up, the number of casualties of NATO and American forces is up, the amount of territory that U.N. and other third parties evaluate is under the control of the Taliban or outside the control of the government continues to increase. It's hard for me to imagine that the Taliban is going to be seriously interested in negotiations or that you can find defections from the Taliban when they feel they're winning.
The other thing I would ask you to bear in mind is this -- the search for a moderate Taliban is not a new phenomenon. People have been looking for, quote, "moderates" in the Taliban since 1997 and 1998. So far, no significant break has occurred within the movement.
DAN SAGALYN: In fact, a few days after the talks in Saudi Arabia the leadership of the Taliban issued a statement, proclaiming that "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is on the verge of victory" and that "the most successful path for resolving the Afghanistan problem is for the foreign forces to leave unconditionally."
Afghanistan analyst Barnet Rubin says public discussion about talks could cause the insurgents to harden their positions. Still, the insurgents have their own reasons for wanting to negotiate.
BARNET RUBIN: When you're hitting an insurgency or a counterinsurgency, you want your soldiers to be willing, and fighters, to be willing to go out and do battle and risk their lives and if they think you're just going to cut a deal the next day, they become reluctant to do that. So when there are reports in the newspaper that Taliban are negotiating and might cut off their ties with Osama bin Laden, then of course their leaders issue press statements saying, "No, we're going to fight to the last man and until the Americans leave." And similarly, on the other side, people in the U.S. and Congress say, "No, we're not going to negotiate from a position of weakness. We have to strengthen ourselves and then we'll see about negotiating." And sometimes those statements become self-fulfilling.
But when you actually talk to them, it's true that they feel the government is in a weak position. But they don't necessarily feel that they are in a very strong position, because they're very dependent, for instance, on Pakistan. They are not reactors. It's true that the government is weak and they can operate in much of the country. They also know that they can't win, because the United States and NATO are there against them.
DAN SAGALYN: As it stands, militant commanders frequently switch sides in Afghanistan, but this phenomenon has little strategic impact, according to Chris Mason. He's a former State Department official who served in Afghanistan on a provincial reconstruction team in Paktika Province.
CHRIS MASON, former State Department official: The nature of warfare in Afghanistan is such that antagonists talk to each other daily on the cell phone. These guys all know each other. If you're thinking of warfare Afghanistan in the paradigm of World War II, where the allies are on one side and the Germans are on the other. And there's this war going on, and then maybe a third power like Switzerland or something could intervene and carry messages back and forth, it's not like that. Guys on both sides are cousins, or second cousins or third cousins and they talk to each other daily on the cell phone. And before they attack they call each other and say "Hey, we're coming over there. We're going to kick your butts" kind of thing. And the other guys are yammering on, "We're ready for you." This kind of discussion between kinsmen goes on all the time.
DAN SAGALYN: As for the talks, Mason adds.
CHRIS MASON: I don't think it's a bad idea, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere. The Taliban right now are in position of strength. They believe they're winning and they think time is on their side and they don't see any reason why they should negotiate. If they're going to win, why negotiate.
DAN SAGALYN: Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington emphasizes that trying to incorporate lower level insurgent commanders, has already been done. He also says his government and coalition partners need a more coordinated approach, especially when it comes to dealing those who are on the so-called watch list.
SAID JAWAD: As far as other prominent leaders, especially those who are on the watch list of the international community, unless we clearly define what approach we as Afghans, international community, Americans, NATO countries take on that issue, any kind of discussion any kind of contact will be very much at odds and the only benefit what will generate will be some political gain or public relation propaganda for the other side, for the Taliban and Hekmatyar group.
DAN SAGALYN: According to Barnet Rubin, insurgents are more likely to negotiate and lay down their arms if they are not threatened with being arrested and sent to Guantanamo.
BARNET RUBIN: A number of Taliban leaders over the years have approached the Afghan government to see if they could come over, but one of the main sticking points always was that the Afghan government could not guarantee that they would not be sent to Guantanamo or Bagram by the United States.
DAN SAGALYN: So guaranteeing the security of the Taliban who want to talk is really important?
DAN SAGANLYN: Afghanistan, and talks with the Taliban and other insurgents are on the full plate of foreign policy issues that will confront the Obama administration. Exactly how the next president approaches these issues remains to be seen.
For the Online NewsHour, this is Dan Sagalyn.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|