Time to Talk to the Taliban?

Despite a spiral of violence in Afghanistan, the United States must reorient its security-first strategy and consider immediate talks with Taliban and other militant fighters, says independent analyst Matt Waldman.

July 27, 2010

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.

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Wars and Conflict


As the United States seeks to regain the initiative in the Afghan war, U.S. and Afghan officials are considering ways to lure militants away from the fight. Appeasement and reconciliation talks with Taliban fighters is one approach, as are efforts to empower local defense forces and broader attempts to negotiate ceasefires with senior Taliban commanders. But Matt Waldman, an independent Afghan analyst who has studied the insurgency since 2006, warns that a general misunderstanding of why Afghans fight is undermining current efforts. One example, he says, are preconditions for reconciliation (NYT) set by the Afghan government, including a requirement that fighters renounce violence, embrace the Afghan constitution, and pledge allegiance to a peaceful state. "They are effectively asking for surrender, and surrender is not reconciliation," Waldman says. "If we insist on those preconditions, I can guarantee you there will be no meaningful reconciliation process."

Waldman, who has written extensively about reconciliation efforts (PDF), as well as Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban (PDF), says the United States should consider immediate talks with certain Taliban fighters.

You’ve done a lot of work looking at whether so-called reconciliation can work. First, talk about the drivers pushing Afghans to fight.

There’s broad agreement that the lot of the foot soldiers wouldn’t be fighting if it weren’t for the fact that they were living in very difficult circumstances. They were unemployed and finding it hard to feed their families and of course, that brings with it social stigma, which is partly addressed through the insurgency, which provides a sense of purpose and status. But it’s clear that the factors that actually prompted people, individuals, to join the insurgency were more immediate than just economics. More immediate or fundamental causes [are] the conduct of foreign forces . . . leading to a belief that foreign forces were here for hostile purposes. Many of the drivers [also] relate to the conduct of the government and government officials.

President Hamid Karzai’s government has spelled out what it is looking for in reconciliation efforts. Notably, Afghan talks will begin only with those who renounce violence and have no links to international terrorist organizations, among other issues. It’s a lot of requirements for fighters that appear to be winning. Is this program realistic?

The preconditions that have been set by the international community [and outlined by the Karzai government] are overambitious and unrealistic. They are effectively asking for surrender, and surrender is not reconciliation. If we insist on those preconditions, I can guarantee you there will be no meaningful reconciliation process. There may be scope for what is called reconciliation, although there are different interpretations of what reconciliation actually is.

How is reconciliation defined in all its various permutations?

[T]he preconditions that have been set down by the international community are overambitious and unrealistic. They are effectively asking for surrender, and surrender is not reconciliation.

Some U.S. officials see it as a sort of high-level reintegration whereby individual insurgents and perhaps their factions come over to the government’s side. In that sense, they see it as a tool of counterinsurgency designed to weaken and divide the enemy. Others see it as a means of securing perhaps some sort of deal with insurgent leaders which would enable international troops to withdraw. [And] others see it as a process that seeks to address the grievances and conflicts that exist between many different factions and groups within Afghan society, including between insurgent groups and the current administration, to try to establish a more sustainable political settlement and one certainly that is more inclusive.

At the moment, there is too little coherence about reconciliation. So long as the insurgents do not believe that the United States is serious about reconciliation, they will not take it seriously. There’s got to be, and indeed I believe there will be, a change of attitude and a more coherent policy position. The United States for the time being has taken a backseat and has given some tentative support to President Karzai and his outreach activities and his discussions with Pakistani military and intelligence teams, but ultimately it has to go further than that. There has got to be engagement with the armed opposition to establish whether there is the possibility of [creating] some sort of structured process of talks to see whether the issues driving this conflict can be addressed. The reconciliation process is fraught with challenges and risks, but if conditions continue to deteriorate, there may be few other options.

The immediate focus for the United States and the international forces seems to be improving security before dealing with Afghanistan’s politics. One example is the recent push by General David Petraeus to stand up local defense forces (NYT), something Karzai has resisted. Is this the right approach?

The weight of opinion in Washington seems to be that America can only negotiate from a position of strength. I have to say that the conditions on the ground indicate that it may not be possible for America to achieve a position of greater strength. Given the illegitimacy of the government and the weakness of the police and, to some extent, the army; the record-high casualty figures to our international forces; the sustained campaign by the insurgents who have been increasingly effective; and also this systematic campaign of intimidation and threats against the Afghan population--abhorrent but highly effective--these facts raise the question of whether it is indeed possible for the United States to achieve a position of greater strength. The evidence seems to be that it actually is deepening the mistrust between the insurgents and the U.S. and the Afghan government, that it is increasing animosity, and that the successful attacks on commanders and insurgent leaders is generating younger militants who, in many cases, are more extreme and perhaps less likely to support peace talks.

Given all this, are talks even possible, now or in the future?

Now is the time to take the broad reconciliation agenda seriously, and now is the time to engage with the armed opposition. If their demands are so utterly incompatible with both Afghan and international aspirations for Afghanistan, then we may be left with no choice [but to engage militarily]. But let us see. Given the [international forces’] difficulty of achieving a position of strength, and given that the idea of talks is broadly supported by the Afghan population, it must be right to try to take that forward. And the United States needs to support that.

On Sunday, the online organization WikiLeaks released a trove of Afghan war documents that, among other things, raises questions about Pakistan’s role in Afghan instability. You authored a report (PDF) just last month looking at Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban. What’s in it strategically for Pakistan, and how might Pakistani activities complicate Washington’s objectives in Afghanistan?

Counterinsurgency in these conditions cannot succeed as it’s currently configured, principally because you have a host government that is largely seen as ineffective, weak, illegitimate, corrupt, and even predatory.

In terms of why Pakistan is acting as they are--well, I would reiterate that I don’t think this is conclusive evidence, but there’s an awful lot of circumstantial evidence here that points in that direction. We have to take it seriously while acknowledging that it is not conclusive. One has to conclude that it is predominantly attributable to the latent conflict with India. [And] we perhaps underestimate the intensity of that rivalry. We kind of forget that there have been three wars and a number of other clashes between the two nations. Mistrust has been reinforced in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombing in 2008 that killed 166 individuals. If you see Pakistan’s activities that through that sort of paradigm, you [get] an explanation as to why they may be providing this support and sanctuary.

In your report you questioned whether Pakistan can or should be seen as an effective U.S. partner if this kind of circumstantial evidence keeps surfacing. Should it? Does the United States have a choice?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

I certainly don’t think it’s a case of just one thing or another. But I do believe that America does have a choice about the way it engages with Pakistan and the way it approaches the conflict in Afghanistan--in particular, the role Pakistan plays. It requires a very careful use of incentives and disincentives, and disincentives might include perhaps not being as generous as America is with funding. The other issue is the United States [could] take an active and proactive role in seeking to improve relations between India and Pakistan, encouraging and facilitating and supporting efforts to try to move forward on the issue of Kashmir. If there was a concerted, determined effort to try to support that, there is potential [for a breakthrough]. The United States might be able to play a role in persuading India not to have quite such a significant perceived presence [in Afghanistan], which reinforces the fear of some officials in Pakistan.

I don’t believe that these steps are being pursued with sufficient vigor. If we see positive momentum in the Pakistan-India relationship, then that could have an extremely beneficial knock-on effect on Afghanistan.

In addition to the Pakistan intelligence service-Taliban connection, the WikiLeaks documents provide a rich mosaic of field reports and assessments that offer a grim look at the Afghan war. What do you think the fallout of the reports will be--in Afghanistan and the West?

It depends on your perspective. I do think that the documents that were leaked really don’t portray anything that would be new to Afghans. There are some details I was not aware of, [but] it all is consistent with the reports that I have from talking to Afghans in villages, communities, different parts of the country, whether it’s in the west or south or north, and whether it’s these attacks that killed civilians or the corrupt police officials or the support provided by the ISI [Pakistan intelligence]. All of that is something that if you’re talking to ordinary Afghans, you hear quite commonly.

What this may do is to perhaps affect the judgment of Western publics, because it perhaps brings home to them the very severe challenges that are faced in the course of this campaign. For me, it did demonstrate, very clearly, that counterinsurgency in these conditions cannot succeed as it’s currently configured, principally because you have a host government that is largely seen as ineffective, weak, illegitimate, corrupt, and even predatory. And you have the insurgents having a sanctuary and significant support outside of the country. In those conditions, one [must] accept that counterinsurgency cannot succeed, [which raises] a question, "What is the right strategy to move forward?" [The challenges detailed in the documents] reinforce the need for a political process which is inclusive and which seeks to engage the various parties in this conflict, as well as of course the Afghan people themselves to try and address some of the sources of the conflict.