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Can Negotiations Crack the Deadlock in Afghanistan?

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 25, 2013

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The war in Afghanistan is likely to be a "grinding stalemate" after NATO forces depart at the end of 2014, as long as the U.S. Congress continues to foot the bill for Afghan forces battling the Taliban, says CFR's Afghanistan expert Stephen Biddle. However, he says it's questionable to assume Washington's long-term financial support. The most practical course for Western powers in the long term is to support a negotiated settlement that "involves real compromise from both sides," although he says the process will be trying. Biddle says that the Pakistanis, who have protected the Taliban all these years, just want to ensure that the government that eventually emerges in Kabul is not pro-Indian.

The Afghan war now has been going on since 2002. Are we reaching the end of it? What's the prognosis?

President [Barack] Obama has said that in 2014 Afghans will have full responsibility for waging the war, and that it will come to "a responsible end." But the war will certainly not come to an end at the close of 2014. The U.S. presence might end, depending on decisions that haven't been made yet, but the war will certainly continue. And the long-term prognosis for the war is up in the air at this point. The conduct of the war militarily is basically stalemated, and my guess is that after 2014 it will continue to be stalemated.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

A reasonable estimate of what Afghan security forces will be able to do after 2014 is that they'll be able to hold what they have, but I don't think they'll be able to expand the government's zone of control very much. And the Taliban will continue to hold some strategically important real estate, especially in the eastern part of the country, but also in some parts of the south. We're probably not going to see the Taliban rolling into Kabul and defeating the government militarily, but neither are we going to see the government defeating the Taliban militarily. What we're likely to get is a grinding stalemate that continues as long as the U.S. Congress pays the bills to keep the Afghan National Security Forces (NSF) fighting.

What is the likelihood, in your opinion, of that happening?

In the near term, the likelihood is quite good. My guess is Congress will pay whatever the administration requests for a few years. The problem is they have to keep doing that indefinitely, unless you think that the U.S. Congress's patience is going to exceed the Taliban's. And that's a pretty demanding assumption to make, because the Taliban is fond of the cliché that "the Americans have the watches, but we have the time." It is famously patient.

So, if there's no means for the Afghan government to bring the war to an end militarily, you're left with only two scenarios in the long-term: either the Taliban does in fact wait us out, when sooner or later the U.S. Congress shaves the appropriation to the point where the Afghan military can't function successfully, or we negotiate a settlement. Those are the only long-term plausible outcomes. So, I think in practical terms the acceptable end state for the West in this war is some kind of a negotiated settlement; and therefore the real issue is how do we get a settlement we can live with, what will its terms be, and what do we have to do in order to make those terms livable for us?

Over the past year there was a lot of publicity given to an effort to get negotiations started, and that didn't work out. Where do things stand now?

Negotiations are deadlocked right now, and there's a lot of skepticism and concern about the prognosis for talks--and this is understandable. This is a very hard negotiating problem in a lot of ways. Just in terms of the basic structure of the talks, these are hard negotiations. There are lots and lots of independent players with veto power: there's the Afghan government; there's potential opponents to a deal with in Afghan society, like northerners and women's groups who are typically very skeptical about concessions to the Taliban; there's the Pakistanis who are obvious veto players. There are at least three different Taliban factions, many of whom could decide not to go along with the deal. There's the U.S. government. There's the British government. There's the German government. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen associated with this soup.

There's also a lot of skepticism about whether the Taliban is really interested in negotiating. Many people believe that the Taliban thinks it can wait out Western support for President [Hamid] Karzai and get what it wants without making any concessions, so why should it make any? There are a lot of people who think that the Taliban has expressed interest in talks mostly because [its members] think the talks will be a legitimizing device for them and give them a soapbox from which to criticize the West and advance their political agenda. American conservatives tend to be skeptical about the talks because they think the Obama administration is using them simply as a fig leaf for surrender. American progressives tend to be skeptical about the talks because they think it will sell out the interests of Afghan women. So, there's a lot of skepticism out there.

Do you think the idea of negotiations is hopeless?

No. It's a mistake to assume these talks are hopeless for a couple of reasons. One is that if you come to that conclusion then basically what you're left with is a finding that we will lose the war eventually. If you believe the talks are hopeless, the near-term right policy is probably not to continue to sink tens of billions of dollars a year into a doomed project. The U.S. government is not flush with money at the moment, so spending ten to twenty billion or more a year for another, what, five, six years? That's one reason to reject the position of utter skepticism about negotiation.

The other reason to reject that position on negotiation is that there's some reason to believe that the Taliban might in fact be willing to talk seriously if the negotiations aren't simply a surrender instrument in which the Taliban just gives in. If it's a negotiation that involves real compromise from both sides, there might be something in a deal that could look better to the Taliban than another five or ten years of stalemated warfare.

Where do the Pakistanis, who've protected the Taliban for all these years, stand on this? The new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was just in Washington. Has he spoken about this much?

Well, even if he had, it's important to look to the underlying strategic interests of Pakistan in this conflict, which go beyond just this prime minister. There are two different bad outcomes the Pakistanis want to prevent: one is that the counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan collapses, the government falls, and you get 1990s-style anarchic civil warfare on their western border inside Afghanistan. But, another bad outcome for Pakistan would be the consolidation of a government in Afghanistan that is politically free to align with whomever it wishes, and thus might choose to align with India.

And what would Pakistan prefer?

What Pakistan would like in an ideal world is an Afghan client state whose foreign policy Islamabad could control. [The United States is] not happy about that, so that's not likely to come about. The plausible, mutually acceptable outcome that Pakistanis and Americans and Afghans can live with is some sort of coalition government in Afghanistan that gives Pakistan's proxies enough influence so that Islamabad can have some confidence the country at least won't align with India, but that doesn't make Afghanistan a client state of the Pakistanis.

The worry the Pakistanis have in all this though is that they'll end up with that first, worst case. If the United States withdraws, and if the Afghan government collapses, [Pakistan] will get stuck with chaos, and that's what's largely responsible for their support for the Taliban. The Taliban is the Pakistanis' plan B in the event that the American project fails and the Afghan government collapses. The Taliban is also the Pakistanis' potential proxy in some sort of coalition government. A political role for the Taliban is necessary in order for Pakistan to have enough influence over Afghan foreign policy that doesn't end up being explicitly anti-Pakistani.

Do we know whom the Pakistanis put their money on? Is it still Mullah Omar?

Because there are multiple factions in the Taliban, the Pakistanis have links to several of them—in fact, all three major Taliban factions: the Quetta Shura Taliban, as it's sometimes called, under Mullah Omar, active mostly in Afghanistan's south and to some extent its east; the Haqqani network, which is active mostly in Afghanistan's east; and the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, or the HIG, that's active mostly in Afghanistan's northeast.

The relative degree of Pakistani confidence in these respective actors as proxies for their interests waxes and wanes over time. There are a variety of people who think that, at the moment, the Pakistanis are increasingly dependent on the Haqqanis.

Can the Afghan forces deal with these guys?

Well, again, if Congress pays their bills, the Afghan NSF will be enough to defend adequately. I don't think they're going to be able to roll back the Haqqanis and kick them out of the country. But, they can prevent the Haqqanis from conquering Kabul. They can continue to hold other major urban areas in the east against the Haqqanis and in the south and southwest against the Quetta Shura. But that requires continued congressional funding. The operating budget of the Afghan NSF last fiscal year was more than twice the entire domestic revenue of the entire Afghan government. They cannot keep this force in their field indefinitely, or even very long at all, on their own.

Now there is an Afghan presidential election set for next April, right?

We hope, but there have been various noises at various times about Afghans wanting to delay it. Our policy is that it should occur on time, as scheduled.

Is there a candidate that we prefer?

Our policy is that we are not going to support a candidate. Now, obviously there are some that you can safely bet the [Obama] administration would prefer over others—somebody who's a moderate, whose interests are aligned with the West, and who's not that closely associated with President Hamid Karzai. But, in the last election in 2009, Karzai in particular believed that the United States was actively involved in trying to defeat him, and that poisoned our relationship with him. Ultimately, if that was the U.S. policy, it obviously failed. So, this time around, it's the position of the U.S. government that it's not our business to determine who Afghans should vote for.

And he obviously has his brother running this time.

That's true. He also has some other close allies that are running, including Zalmai Rassoul, his foreign minister. There are various candidates in the race who could be seen as protégés of Hamid Karzai.

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