WASHINGTON, DC – The Obama administration has affirmed that, while it will not participate directly, it supports the idea of peace negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. This nod from the White House followed the publication of reports that representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had begun preliminary high-level talks regarding a possible coalition government and an agreed timetable for a NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The issue of negotiating a rapprochement between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban is undoubtedly controversial. The hope is that the Taliban leadership is not cohesive – that, whereas some of its members are probably committed to al-Qaeda’s absolutist ideology, others might accept a compromise settlement.
Karzai and Western leaders have repeatedly insisted that their reconciliation offer does not extend to al-Qaeda members, who are seen as alien foreign elements whose extremist convictions and past terrorist activities make them unacceptable negotiating partners. Although al-Qaeda and the Taliban are united in their desire to expel Western troops from Afghanistan and reestablish a strict Islamic government in which they enjoy a monopoly of political and religious power, some Taliban leaders might accept more moderate goals.
More importantly, the Taliban in government would not necessarily support Islamic insurgencies in other countries or engage in distant terrorist attacks in Western countries, whereas al-Qaeda almost certainly would. In recent years, Taliban representatives, aware of widespread eagerness to end the country’s decades of fighting, have insisted that their political ambitions are confined to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leaders, by contrast, remain wedded to the goal of establishing radical Islamist regimes throughout the Muslim world and waging war against a long list of governments that they see as hostile to this objective.
The key uncertainty is whether an Afghan government that includes the Taliban would and could prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing bases in regions under Taliban control. Some argue that the Taliban, eager to return to power, would want to reconcile with the international community or at least prevent further Western military strikes. But it is hard to imagine the Taliban using force to prevent their al-Qaeda allies from reestablishing a military presence in Afghanistan and exploiting that presence to organize additional terrorist attacks in other countries. The Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are closely integrated at the operational level, with al-Qaeda members embedded in most important Taliban field operations.
Thus far, the Taliban leadership has publicly rejected Karzai’s reconciliation overtures. For example, they greeted the inauguration of the June 2010 Peace Jirga with rocket attacks and suicide bombers. Until now, Taliban representatives have demanded that all Western troops leave Afghanistan before they even consider engaging in direct talks with the Afghan government. Karzai has sought to finesse the issue by arguing that a peace agreement that ended the insurgency would bring about the withdrawal of all foreign military forces.
Another obstacle is many Taliban leaders’ opposition to Afghanistan’s current constitution, which was adopted after the Taliban lost power. It includes a number of liberal-democratic principles that many Taliban consider objectionable, if not blasphemous.
For example, the constitutional provision guaranteeing women equal rights is a major source of dispute. Fearing the loss of guaranteed schooling for girls and other rights, many women’s rights groups, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, oppose negotiating with the Taliban. The 2001 Bonn Agreement, the 2006 London Compact, and NATO’s April 2008 Bucharest Declaration also list a range of political, economic, and social objectives for Afghanistan that in many cases conflict with Taliban values. Human rights groups suspect that even if the Afghan government and Taliban representatives profess to respect the constitution in any future peace agreement, they will not enforce some of its provisions in practice.
Even if Taliban leaders affirmed their willingness to talk, it would be hard to trust their intentions. They could easily imitate the North Vietnamese strategy of professing to accept a compromise peace settlement in order to secure a foreign military withdrawal. They then could resume offensive operations against the still weak Afghan Security Forces, which have yet to demonstrate much military effectiveness.
The Pakistani Taliban has employed a variant of this strategy in the past, ostentatiously negotiating truces with the military in order to allow their forces to rest and regroup before resuming their attacks shortly thereafter. Unlike in Pakistan, moreover, the Afghan insurgents could resume fighting with the expectation that their main adversary, the international forces, would be considerably hobbled in their response, because Western publics would prevent their governments from sending their troops back to battle.
One reason why progress in the reconciliation processes has been slower than anticipated is that Western governments have not pressed Karzai to engage in genuine peace negotiations with Taliban leaders until coalition forces have had the opportunity to reverse the deteriorating situation on the battlefield. US policymakers in particular wanted to take advantage of the ongoing surge in NATO combat forces in Afghanistan – which reached 150,000 in August, of which some two-thirds were American – to shake Taliban commanders’ conviction that they were winning the war.
It would be a mistake to disconnect the situation on the battlefield from the reconciliation process. If NATO’s forces work sufficiently well, they might weaken the insurgency enough that the Afghan military could prove adequate to overcoming the remaining hard-liners, even after foreign troops reverse their current surge and scale down their presence during the next few years.