The New York Times reports that NATO is helping high-level Taliban figures travel to Kabul to begin negotiating an end to the war with the Afghan government. It sounds promising, like the light at the end of the tunnel. It probably isn’t.
Efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan date back to at least 1997, when the Uzbek government proposed developing a broad coalition government in Kabul that would include the Taliban as a major-but-nonviolent faction. In 2002, Hamid Karzai announced another broad push to negotiate with the Taliban “leftovers,” offering them a place in the government if they’d stop fighting the coalition. He did so again in 2005, and again in 2007. In 2008 Karzai offered “safe passage” to any Taliban members who wished to travel to Kabul to negotiate, going so far as to guarantee the safety of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Quetta Shura, the largest and most influential insurgent group in the country. In 2009, Karzai’s government expanded its talks to include the Haqqani network, arguably the most violent and radical of the insurgent groups in Afghanistan.
None of these talks have gone anywhere. The terms under which these negotiations take place matter tremendously. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley has laid out how the U.S. envisions the most recent round of talks taking place: Taliban foot-soldiers and leaders are welcome to participate in Afghanistan’s future if they renounce violence, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and support the Afghan constitution. Regarding Mullah Mohammed Omar, Crowley said, “We don’t see that he qualifies to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future.”
If the leader of the largest insurgency in Afghanistan is not welcome at the negotiating table, what exactly would we hope to expect from these talks? Dexter Filkins gives some worrying details:
The identities of the Taliban leaders are being withheld by The New York Times at the request of the White House and an Afghan who has taken part in the discussions. The Afghan official said that identifying the men could result in their deaths or detention at the hands of rival Taliban commanders or the Pakistani intelligence agents who support them.
To clarify: the ongoing talks are being kept a secret, in part, so that participants will not be murdered by Pakistani intelligence. These same Pakistani agents have disrupted previous efforts to broker negotiations, arresting even senior leaders in the Taliban when they reached out without Pakistani approval.
Of course, buried under all of this political intrigue is a very simple fact: without a reason to engage in talks, there is little evidence the talks will lead anywhere. On Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said, “I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile.”
The last four years have seen a slow, but accelerating, deterioration in the tenuous security gains of 2002 and 2003 — broad areas the country once considered safe, like the northern provinces, are now incredibly violent. The south, where aid workers could live openly, is now so bad that westerners fetch $200,000 in abduction ransom. By almost every measure, the Taliban are winning — despite the massive assassination campaign begun under Gen. David Petraeus (who brags of the hundreds of “senior leaders” killed or arrested, to negligible security gains). It is unreasonable under these circumstances to show up at a negotiating event and expect them to renounce a thing: they have the advantage.
It is possible that the dramatic increase in high-level pressure on insurgent leadership can push the insurgency into negotiations. In fact, that may be why there is such interest on the part of the insurgency to travel to Kabul for talks. However, given domestic American politics — which anyone can read and consume on the Internet — there is no reason to assume the U.S. will remain as a permanent guarantor of whatever agreement might be reached.
In all likelihood, by 2015, the American presence will have been reduced to a largely financial one, with U.S. dollars funding whatever Afghan security forces are left, and possibly participating in any training mission that remains. While the threat of a unilateral strike from a drone, cruise missile or attack aircraft will always remain a possibility — so long as Pakistan allows such a strike (and Max Fisher, of The Atlantic, notes that Pakistan is not at all guaranteed to remain on America’s side if these negotiations proceed without its consent) — it’s difficult to see how such an outcome is intolerable for the various insurgent factions. They can certainly weather any realistic amount of U.S. bombardment from the air by hiding among the population, much as they do now, and they’ve proven resilient and even victorious when fighting the Afghan forces without U.S. support. They’d survive; American patience, however, might not.
At the end of the day, the history of these negotiations must be taken into account, and not just whatever immediacies surround their current form. The U.S. and Afghanistan have tried, repeatedly, from positions of greater strength, to bring the various insurgent factions to the table. Every single attempt has been a resounding failure. While a few aspects of the current round of negotiations are new, there’s little indication the process, or the demands of either side, will be terribly different. Thus, it is a mistake to assume much will come from the reconciliation talks. The positions are just too irreconcilable.