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Six Experts on Negotiating with the Taliban

Authors: Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council Thomas H. Johnson, Director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School Robert Templer, Director, Asia Program, International Crisis Group Hilary Synnott, Consulting Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies Michael Semple, Former Deputy to the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan Masood Aziz, Former Afghan Diplomat
Interviewer(s): Jayshree Bajoria
March 20, 2009

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Earlier this month, President Obama proposed (NYT) the controversial notion of reaching out to moderate elements of the Afghan Taliban. The idea, favored by some experts and encouraged by Saudi Arabia's facilitation, has been pursued for months by the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At the same time, as far back as 2004, the Pakistani leadership has cut deals with various insurgent groups, including the Pakistani Taliban. But dealing with a group which harbored al-Qaeda before 9/11 and which has destabilized both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a risky political and military strategy. CFR.org asked six experts whether talks aimed at reconciling with moderate elements of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a viable policy option for the United States.

Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council

Engaging with the Taliban in Afghanistan is certainly a viable option for the United States, since it allows the United States to help isolate the extremist elements from those who feel compelled to join the Taliban insurgency under threat or in return for favors and largesse. Importantly, by showing that it is willing to speak with the "enemy," the engagement could create a more positive view of the United States in local eyes. The United States must also try to separate the mujahadeen commanders, such as the Haqqanis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, from the Taliban of Mullah Omar, since they are potentially rivals for power in Kabul. This may involve use of tribal and Pakistani interlocutors who once worked with these commanders during the jihad against the Soviet Union.

From CFR Experts:
"By all accounts much of the Taliban’s actual combat strength is provided by an array of warlords and other factions with often much more secular motivations, who side with the Taliban for reasons of profit, prestige, or convenience."

The United States must not even try to enter into negotiations inside Pakistan. Instead, it can and should support Pakistani efforts to isolate the extremists inside that country by winning over the moderate populations in both the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to wrest influence from the Pakistani Taliban. This should not be done by ceding territory but by winning over the population. Direct injection of cash aid for community projects may be an effective method of winning friends in these areas. Low-profile collaboration with the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps to deliver resources from the CENTCOM Commander's Emergency Response Program may be one option. Building on the expertise of the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. embassy in Pakistan and the Office of Transition Initiatives to start quick-impact projects that would benefit locals rapidly, the United States can help Pakistan break the stranglehold of the local Taliban over large swaths of FATA and the NWFP. Longer-term aid could then consolidate those gains.

Thomas H. Johnson, Director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School

An ongoing dialogue with the Taliban should be part of our counterinsurgency strategy, but such a venture is fraught with danger.

Since 2006, various partners of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have pursued a dialogue with regional Taliban figures as well as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. None of these efforts have borne fruit. It's been difficult to identify who can in fact speak for the Taliban insurgent leadership. While these talks proceeded, the insurgency has become more violent and casualty rates have soared for the ISAF.

Not everyone believes in dialogue. The outside powers such as ISAF members the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Norway like the idea; regional powers such as Iran, India, and Russia oppose it.

Historically, Pashtuns (who constitute the core Taliban constituency) have negotiated only when they perceive themselves in a position of strength. If their public statements are to be believed, the Taliban today think they are in a position of strength. Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi recently stated: "We struggle for almighty Allah and we are sure we are winning."

Those that support dialogue and negotiations believe that talks can split the insurgency between "moderates" and the extremist global jihadists. I am frankly unsure of who the moderate Taliban are. The structure of the Taliban is complex. The organizational structures at the local, provincial, regional, and national levels are not all necessarily tied together in a unified hierarchy and the political leaders (the Quetta shura, Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda) remain outside of Afghanistan.

I support the idea of a dialogue. We should start by reaching out to local Taliban leaders. This is a double-edged sword, since reaching out to these figures also potentially exposes us to dealing with criminals and corrupt politicians--in addition to the insurgent leaders. For long-term success, however, I think we need a process that starts at the local level that builds from the ground up. Maybe this is the way to really identify leaders worth talking to.

While talk is a good idea, there are people to avoid. Negotiating with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a bad idea. He is a power-hungry, untrustworthy warlord bent on self-serving political aims, and he is highly unpopular throughout Afghanistan.

Another disaffected group already feeling marginalized by the Karzai regime is the warlords in the north (the so-called Northern Alliance). This group could cause major problems if concessions to the Taliban end up affecting their control in areas populated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. It is believed 60 percent of the Afghan National Army is Tajik, many of whom are still loyal to warlord Gen. Mohammed Fahim. Reports of militias beginning to rearm in the north recently surfaced when rumors circulated that Karzai had offered concessions to Mullah Omar.

Robert Templer, Director, Asia Program, International Crisis Group

Not yet. Negotiations from a position of weakness will end up boosting the Taliban and further weakening the Afghan state. First, Afghan government institutions need to be strengthened, particularly the police, courts, and prisons. Local government structures need more powers and more money. Then Afghans needs to discuss some basic principles for negotiations. Should the Taliban have to accept the constitution? Are there people in the Taliban who are beyond the pale? Would there be an amnesty? Would they be allowed to keep their arms? And if so, what would the response be from other ethnic groups who bore the brunt of Taliban violence before 2001?

So far hardly any of the key questions have even been asked, never mind answered. Negotiating without some consensus on what these talks would mean is a recipe for even more divisions within the country. Talks that are driven by an outside power such as the United States will not result in enduring agreements. If there are discussions with the Taliban, they need to be driven by Afghans with the basic principles agreed ahead of time. They also need to take place in an environment where a stronger state can absorb insurgents, not be taken over by them. The lessons are clear from earlier agreements with insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have mostly resulted in concessions of territory and power to people who have no intention of following the rule of law.

Hilary Synnott, Consulting Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies

One of the difficulties in dealing with the multiple challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan lies in identifying who are "the bad guys" who contribute to the instability in that turbulent region. As many others have pointed out, it is not helpful to label all those who oppose NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the Pakistani and Afghan security forces as "al-Qaeda and the Taliban." In practice the opposition is made up of many and varied groups who are motivated by many different factors. Some of them, such as al-Qaeda and the more extreme Salafists, may not be susceptible to dialogue or moderating influences. But others, such as some of those who feel obligated to pursue the Pashtun tribal custom of avenging the death of a family member, those who are being coerced by extremists of whom they disapprove, or those who are frustrated by the lack of alternative opportunities, may be persuaded or induced to lay down their arms and work for peace. It is right and prudent to try to identify such people and, according to the customs of the country, to sit down and talk with them. Lasting peace and stability will not be, and never has been, brought about by force alone. Selective engagement, negotiation, and efforts towards reconciliation are essential.

Michael Semple, Former Deputy to the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan

Enabling pragmatic Taliban to integrate honorably and peacefully in the political system will be an important element of the U.S. strategy for success in Afghanistan. The plan for realistic reconciliation must be built on an understanding of the political dynamics of the insurgency, must incorporate lessons from Afghan experience in opposition engagement, and must focus on modest, attainable goals.

A series of blunders in the handling of the follow-up to the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime helped those who wanted to mobilize for the new insurgency. The blunders now have to be undone. I recall sitting with enthusiastic Western officials in September 2001 to list the pragmatic Taliban with whom we could work. But an inside-outside game by the Afghans we put into power helped ensure the Taliban stayed on the outside.

Those who claim that reconciliation has already been tried ignore the lack of any serious strategic effort to engage with the insurgent commanders. The call for an "Afghan lead" has been an excuse for masterly inactivity by the international community. There has been no credible effort at Taliban or insurgent reconciliation since 2001. The international actors have largely held back from pursuing their own contacts with the insurgency, on the basis that the Afghan government must lead. But the official reconciliation program, the PTS scheme run by the venerable Sebghatullah Mujadidi, has made no inroads into the insurgency. Hardly any of the over five thousand people it claims to have reconciled were at any stage active insurgents. In any case the arrangements for taking care of housing, economic, and security needs of any Taliban wishing to reconcile have been embarrassingly inadequate.

If the United States throws its weight behind a revamped reconciliation initiative, it can contribute to an incremental peace. Some of the insurgency's commander networks, consisting of veteran Taliban or jihad-era commanders and the fighters loyal to them, can be persuaded to end the struggle against the government if they are honorably accommodated within the new setup and protected from harassment at the hands of local or international security forces. Accommodation of the networks means jobs for the men, sinecures for the commanders, and security for all. Cutting such deals requires intensive diplomacy to establish confidence and sift out the opportunists. The Afghan government has only delivered on this for a handful of presidential favorites such as Kajaki's Mullah Abdul Salaam.

The best hope for progress on reaching out to the Afghan Taliban is if Pakistan can be turned into a sort of "reconciliation safe haven." All the main commander networks active in the Afghan insurgency have a presence in Pakistan and are more approachable there than when at the front. Hitherto Taliban in Pakistan have been wary of acknowledging an interest in reconciliation for fear of being victimized. If those conducting the outreach can be protected, Pakistan is the ideal place to conduct the initial contacts with commander networks and build the confidence which must underpin any reconciliation deal. A request for Pakistan to allow this track-two type diplomacy and engagement with the commander networks should be high on U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke's wish list.

In contrast, there is little scope for reaching out to Pakistani Taliban groups who have so systematically appealed to the cause of jihad against the United States in Afghanistan to help them mobilize in Pakistan. The best political way for the United States to address the Pakistan insurgency would be to reach an accommodation with the Afghan Taliban and bury the notion that there is a jihad in Afghanistan.

Masood Aziz, Former Afghan Diplomat

Let us not confuse what needs to be done in terms of a political reconciliation from what is meant by negotiations with the Taliban. There is no doubt that without a broad political reconciliation seeking full, genuine, and legitimate representation for all, we will never have stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This means integrating the tribal areas into the Pakistani political system and assuring sustained and unmitigated true representation for all Afghan ethnic populations into the fledgling Afghan political system.

When it comes to the Taliban, we first need to understand who the Taliban are before we start demarches for negotiations. I would distinguish between the al-Qaeda variety of the Taliban and everything else, calling it the "Qaliban." This leading faction represents an actual morphing of key Taliban forces with al-Qaeda, making it virtually impossible to distinguish between them. There is no negotiating with this group. The rest of the "bad apples" are composed of drug traffickers, warlords, and criminals. This last group along with the Qaliban and al-Qaeda itself constitute an influential but small number of individuals which will never support the true interests of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan and need to be eradicated.

The so-called moderates are the rest of the people, bargaining for their own daily survival, suffering under the oppression of extremists, from insecurity and abject poverty and caught in the war in Afghanistan or subject to neglect and repressive coercion in Pakistan. This is the population we need to protect and support. We need little negotiation here. In focusing our strategies on protecting the actual population via assuring a cordon of security separating them from the extremists--who need the local population to endure--we create the real conditions needed for stability and sustained development.

Let us not believe in the naďve notion that negotiation with the Taliban means handing Mullah Omar a position in the Afghan Cabinet or that money will buy loyalty from the Taliban. Instead, it should mean doing everything possible to endow the local authorities to have the ability to reach into the villages, allowing each district and locality to have enough security so that they can form local jirgas, determine their own needs, and seek partnerships with the authorities--assisted by international aid--to extract themselves from the yoke of poverty and insecurity and from the coercion of the extremists. This strategy will ultimately be much less costly than any other short-term tactics, which can only prolong our common agony and strengthen the hands of al-Qaeda.

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