A New ’Degree of Hope’ for Afghanistan

CFR’s Daniel Markey examines the prospects for new talks with the Afghan Taliban, especially given improving relations between the United States and Pakistan.

December 19, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

As a result of decisions taken by Pakistan since last summer and new initiatives from Afghanistan, there is now "some degree of hope" for a negotiated end to the Afghan war between the Afghan government and the Taliban, says Daniel Markey, CFR’s top South Asian expert. He says that since a low point was reached last spring, the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan "are making diplomatic overtures to one another and suggesting that they can work together in ways that prior to this summer was certainly not the case." There are many skeptics, he says, and only time will tell if a deal can be worked out. Also involved, he notes, is Turkey, which recently hosted a meeting between the Afghan and Pakistani presidents.

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When we had an interview in June, the headline was "The Widening U.S.-Pakistan Rift." But in recent weeks, there seems to have been a discernible shift, and relations between the United States and Pakistan seem to have improved. But also more dramatically, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to be improving, and there’s even talk of the Pakistanis helping arrange peace talks between the Afghans and the Taliban. Is there really a sea change afoot?

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Wars and Conflict

I’d say we’re seeing a few things. One is that both the U.S. and Pakistani governments, and even the Afghan government, are making diplomatic overtures to one another and suggesting that they can work together in ways that prior to this summer was certainly not the case. It was only in July that the supply routes for NATO forces were reopened by the Pakistanis. So we’ve come a long way from that relative low point in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. But then I’d say there are two other things to look at. One of them is that the Pakistanis have released eighteen Taliban prisoners. They have not extradited them or brought them to Afghanistan; they’ve let them free. And this has been seen as a sign of good faith, because these Taliban are perceived to be Taliban who would like to engage in negotiations of one kind or another with the Afghan government or with the United States. Releasing them frees them to do that, if they want to do it.

What about the U.S. policy?

There has been a big shift on the part of the United States. The Obama administration has followed through on its plans to end the eighteen-month surge that brought forces in Afghanistan to 100,000. And now has been making noises that it plans by 2014 to bring down the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to a radically lower level, somewhere, it appears, beneath 15,000. Some reports say the number might be as low as 6,000-9,000, which is very low. And coupled with that, the United States has been open to Pakistan taking charge on talks of reconciliation by Afghanistan with the Taliban. In the past, the United States had wanted to control that dynamic more directly. Now it looks like it’s willing to outsource it. at least in part. to the Pakistanis.

The United States had been involved in trying to arrange Taliban-Afghan talks in Qatar earlier in the year, but that collapsed. So is this the only live effort now, this Pakistani organized one?

Well, there’s a heavy Pakistani involvement. But in addition, there are meetings supposed to take place just outside of Paris this week. The Pakistanis are helping to facilitate the movement of the Taliban representatives, but this also requires the acquiescence of the UN Security Council for these people, because presumably they’re on UN lists banning international travel. The United States appears, at least by reports, to be ceding a significant degree of control over this process, they would say to the Afghans. But I think to many, including the Afghans, it means to the Afghans and the Pakistanis.

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President Hamid Karzai is coming to the White House the second week of January. What is that meeting about?

There are a lot of different balls in the air, so in addition to these reconciliation-related conversations about how far the United States and the Afghan government should go in terms of concessions to the Taliban, I’m sure there will be discussion also of the question of precisely what number of troops the United States intends to leave behind in Afghanistan after 2014, and what the rules will be for those forces. The United States would like to have a degree of immunity for its forces on the ground. Karzai, I believe, has been trying to use that point as one of negotiation, trying to get, if not more direct assistance, then more military assistance, or having the United States make promises about what it’ll do, even after most of its forces have left, that will help out Karzai and his allies after 2014.

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Wars and Conflict

And what is your sense of it? Do you think that we’re close to some kind of negotiations involving the Taliban?

Yes, I think we’re close to some kind of negotiations, but there are a few things to keep in mind. One would be that we’ve had trouble getting Taliban representatives who are actually representatives of the Taliban leadership to the table in the past. There are a lot of unknowns, probably even within the U.S. government.

There are going to be some questions as to whether whoever shows up to these talks is actually somebody who can speak for the real Taliban leadership inside of Pakistan and then bring them on board. So there’s that question. And then, the Taliban is a sprawling movement and does have different factions to it. The ability of whatever process starts to take shape to bring on board a significant number of those factions, is, to my eye, still completely up in the air. Will the Taliban even agree to the process that has been put forward by the Afghan government, which is essentially a roadmap? Would they be open to that process and the general contours of it, leaving aside what specific demands they would make? Some of them will, but many of them won’t.

In the past, we’ve talked about how the announcement of the U.S. military withdrawal reduced some of the leverage that the United States had in terms of negotiations. As we head for the exits, our leverage and the influence and the threat we pose to the Taliban goes down, and there’s no two ways about that. So there will be those within the Taliban movement who will be wedded to a continue-to-fight strategy.

What do you make of the attack on the polio workers in Pakistan by Taliban fighters?

The attacks are being seen as the consequence of the CIA’s using a polio vaccination team to try to get DNA evidence on Osama bin Laden when he was in Abbottabad. And it is true that the Taliban got the idea from that incident. But now the Taliban is cynically using that issue to hold their people hostage to polio as a perverse form of leverage to try to end the U.S. drone campaign. So while it was a costly tactic to use in hunting bin Laden, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the irresponsible party now is the Taliban, specifically a group within the Taliban movement that includes its most violent, extreme jihadis.

And of course, Pakistan, also knowing the U.S. troops will be leaving, seems to be taking the position that, for its own security, it needs to be more active.

The most constructive way to view this, and this is the way some Pakistani officials are talking, is that they have come to terms with the idea that the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban threaten Pakistan’s security. And that Pakistan needs to have a hand bringing together resolution to the Afghan war, so that it can also bring a resolution to its own conflict with its own insurgents. That’s a very positive thing, and it could even conceivably be true.

But skeptics, including many, many Afghans, will say no, the Pakistanis are seeking to do exactly what they’ve been doing since forever, which is to support their Taliban proxies. If that means playing the game of bringing the Taliban to the table, to get Pakistan back involved in Afghanistan so that they can live to fight for another day, they’ll do that. To skeptical Afghans, particularly from the north who have been fighting the Taliban now for decades, that looks to them what the Pakistanis seem to be up to. We won’t know the results for some time.

What is the U.S. position right now?

The U.S. position is we are leaving militarily, but we are saying officially that we intend to stay till 2014 in a very significantly reduced military and civil capacity. Our ability to make those kinds of promises and then actually follow through is quite limited. Critics of the administration see this as Iraq or Vietnam all over again. Supporters of this move see different analogies. Maybe there will be an ugly Afghanistan for another ten to twenty years, but at least it’s not a place where international forces are engaged at the level that they have been at the cost that’s been paid over the last ten years, so some people see that as a victory in and of itself.

Turkey was the facilitator of talks last week between the Pakistan and Afghan presidents. Is Turkey now becoming a player?

Turkey’s always had a pretty significant influence in Afghanistan. Certainly over the past decade, they’ve been one of the states that have been involved one way or another, either diplomatically, or doing much of the construction work in Afghanistan, which has been done with Turkish contractors. They enjoy reasonably good working relationships with both the Afghans and the Pakistanis, so they’re kind of a natural intermediary. The Saudis are being put forward as an obvious third country where both Afghans and Pakistanis and Taliban would feel comfortable talking to one another. There are a few places that fall into this category, and Turkey is one of them.

At this meeting in Turkey, the Afghans presented a five-step blueprint.

Right, that blueprint was handed over to the Pakistanis before that. I have a copy; it’s from the High Peace Council, "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015," and it is a very interesting document. It lays out all the obvious steps that you would have to go through.

There are a couple of things that jump out--there’s a line about how any outcome of the peace process must respect the Afghan constitution. That is interesting for two reasons. One is that it’s hard to imagine the Taliban fully respecting the Afghan constitution as an outcome of the process. They don’t respect the Karzai government, they don’t respect, by most accounts, the democratic process, per se, and they haven’t in the past respected those rights that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution for women and so on. They haven’t respected minorities in the past. It’s difficult to see exactly what that means, but at least one report noted that the word was "respect," whereas before it was "accept." So it may be a softening--they can respect it, but not accept it. And that may be a way to fuzzy up the language.

But there’s been a lot of thought that’s been put into this roadmap, and the fact that it was shared with the Pakistanis, and that the Pakistanis seem to be relatively on board with much of it, at least holds some hope. And that’s what we’re looking at here--some degree of hope.


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