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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The new, same old talks with the Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, second left, prays with members of the Afghanistan's peace council on Oct. 7. Photo: AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe

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.


  • Anonymous

    Well, there’s one difference: this time the Taliban apparently showed up. And they were important enough that we gave them a free ride. While it would be silly to think this is Omar or even a step down from him, I don’t know that we would have done that for some subcommander with 50 fighters.

    Rumor has it that, of all groups, HQN is thinking about reconciling. This is just rumor, of course.

  • Guest

    I am only aware of one instance of the Taliban negotiating a power sharing agreement to fruition and that ended in a helicopter ride.

  • Joshua Foust

    It’s probably worth noting that the Taliban – including the Haqqani Network – deny participating in the peace talks.

  • Anonymous

    I think despite all Mr. Foust’s well argued piece It is still worth the effort if it leads to Peace! Or not!
    My overall view remains the same.
    1) Get angreement in the Middle east between Israel and Palestine
    2) At the same time make it clear by 2011 end we are out of both Iraq and Afghanistan because in Afghanistan the Taliban can and will always be able to re-group and re-train to fight the Jihad except with Minimal military advisors/trainers and police force. That eliminates the Jihad justification.
    Now, that will result in a Pashtun majority led nation in Afghanistan most of whom support either directly or indirectly or by emotion or tribal loyalty the Taliban
    Mr Kharzai, and his cronies, along with the people get thier laws thier style of governance and yes it will be corrupt and tribal and have moral values and rulkes we abhor but its thier choice the AL qeda numbers wherever are too small to rule Afghanistan, Iraq and Or Yemen or Somalia. If it gets too tough because of Alqeda’s extreme interpretation of Islam the Muslims will effectively kick them out without our help.
    So what are the carrots to make it work.
    1) Support Palestine re the settlement issue and then get negotiating and include Hamas otherwise you leave out too much of Palestines population.
    2) Stop being paranoid about terrorism that’s the effect. Deal with the cause which is attacking/ killing Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are and will remain Muslim nations with Laws and culture and religion we think are outdated/ immoral even, but if they are reasonably happy leave them to it.
    3) The final carrot is if each government wants it:
    Iraq Help with OIL,water and electricity infrastructure, via loans and repaid thru a 5% oil price reduction to US but locally constructed and costs verified by independent auditors.
    Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    Limited ( very ) military aid.
    Help Pakistan negotiate with India the Kashmir issue to resolution. Then re-locate the troops to border areas with Afhanistan to preven arms or fighters crossing the border.
    In both countries its
    Schools, Water infrastructure and irrigation, agricultural, roads and in Pakistan re-afforestation. Say ten schools in each tribal area or province Dams and Irrigations channels by the mile Agriculture In Afghanistan turning over poppy to crops more expensive like pommegranite dates and others and also wheat and basic essentials via subsidies.Local do the work supervised and paid by minimal foreign staff
    Then comes the sticks
    If the Taliban or other organisations attack and destroy schools no more school aid, same with crop change. If Taliban or anyone sets fire to the Pomegranite farms or wheat farms no more aid in any province or tribal region wher it occurs, If they destroy dams roads irrigation channels same. Its irrelevant who destroys them
    The Afghan or Pakistan military, police, must protect constructors and builders or farmers or Local tribal leaders as it always was.
    Face reality This is Jihad not just funded an owned by Al qaeda or the Taliban but by the whole of global Muslim believers, it will last just like the crusade hundreds of years and neither side won that they just stopped fighting each other. Letslearn from History and do it again stop justifying Jihad.
    Themn maybe In times gone by i can turn up at an airport with 1hour to spare and still get on the flight … has anyone tried to figure out the cost benefit analysis of no war no terrorism with Military intervention and the economic cost of the effects of war on western nations.
    Terrorists are the effect not the cause!!
    Guest 5