Conversations with the Taliban

THEO FARRELL — The Taliban are ready to negotiate. The US and NATO are the ones turning the cold shoulder.  

Stephen Biddle of George Washington University noted that “the point of…combat activities is to determine how much…disputed negotiation ground the US [and NATO will] have to give up in order to get a settlement” with the Taliban. Yet given your report’s conclusions, are such parallel strategies — military and diplomatic — doomed for failure?

The answer would be no. It depends on the design of negotiations and the way in which one intends to relate the military line of operations with the diplomatic ones. My impression is that there is no clear vision of how these two factors relate. One assumes that at some point there will be a political calculation at very high levels of the governments involved, that will demand a greater emphasis on negotiations. I thought that such a decision was going to be made; the impression I got from talking with key policymakers in the Obama Administration was that they were on the cusp of making this decision. Yet the most recent reports suggest that the moment has passed, and the Obama Administration is going to slide down towards the 2014 withdrawal date without making any serious attempts for diplomatic progress.

I spent some time at ISAF in early 2010 and I felt that nobody had a clear vision of how to synthesize diplomacy and the military campaign. There was a vague conceptual notion that the NATO forces were putting pressure on the Taliban through the kill/capture campaign and through the ISAF offensives in the South — at that time, in Helmand and Kandahar — and there was a notion that at some point these operations would force the Taliban to some kind of tipping point. Nobody had a clear view of when this would happen or what it would look like. That is the main problem as I perceived it then, and now.

Professor Biddle further outlined the need for a limit to compromise, a point at which western negotiators refuse to offer any more concessions. Is there a danger of compromising too far with the Taliban leadership? Are their goals — as outlined in your report — of playing an active but not executive role in a centralized state credible?

For some time there has been an interest in understanding so-called “red-lines”: what are theirs and ours? What both sides want to do, clearly, is find the space between their opposite’s red line in which to conduct negotiations. My concern is that the West just simply does not fully appreciate what the Taliban’s red lines are, and where there is space for negotiations. On the issue of concessions, there have been very few to the Taliban. That is not to say that this situation is necessarily good or bad, but that it is simply the reality. If one considers NATO’s preparedness to have preliminary talks with the Taliban as a form of concession, it should also be recognized that the Taliban’s willingness to open talks in Qatar is also a concession on their part. They are engaged in a war against the West, and such an offer is very important for them.

On the Taliban’s side, what has not been appreciated until now, is that they simply cannot contemplate engaging in negotiations with the Karzai Administration; that is not to say that they will not negotiate with the government, but they will never talk with Karzai. The Taliban’s official line is that he is a puppet of the Americans, and that it is pointless to negotiate with a puppet when they should be speaking with the puppet master. There is a long history of a personal dislike of Karzai by senior Taliban members, for understandable reasons, and they do not trust him. They have seen the extent to which Karzai is corrupt, although it is also important to ask how far can one trust the Taliban.

Moreover, the Taliban does not have a problem with most of the Afghan Constitution, since it says that Afghanistan must follow Islamic law. They do have a problem with the West’s demands that any negotiations occur in the context of the Constitution, that is, they must sign up to the Constitution before entering negotiations. And the Taliban simply cannot do that, since from their point of view, such a concession is tantamount to surrender.

The people with whom I have spoken about this issue — all very senior Taliban leaders — represented a moderate view within the Taliban, and they all indicated constructive concessions in many different arenas. But on these two issues, there was no room for compromise. If leaders in the West are to realize the possibility for negotiations, it is imperative that they understand these Taliban red-lines, and take those demands off the table. Otherwise negotiations will never get started.

In your Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report, your team concludes that “there was no buy-in whatsoever for accepting the Afghan constitution as it is currently lettered and represented: A document that is widely seen by the base as lending authority to the present Karzai regime.” It seems that no compromise can exclude the end of Karzai’s presidency. Is it reasonable to expect Karzai to step down from power, especially if he feels that such a move gives victory to the Taliban?

If we were having this conversation a few years ago, that would be a very pertinent question. But it has to be viewed in the context of the 2014 deadline, after which Karzai cannot run again for office. The question is, what will happen during the elections of 2014? There is room for maneuver. The 2014 elections present an opportunity for all sides, not least of which is due to the withdrawal of US forces from the battlefield. After 2014 there will be less military pressure hindering negotiations. But against that, the elections will produce a government which will remain in place, presumably, for a number of years. This transition of power presents instead a chance for all parties involved to negotiate a kind of power-sharing arrangement, before the elections lock in a single, new government. There is a great deal at stake as the elections approach, for both sides, and the Taliban have a political interest in bringing forward negotiations which offset their military interests.

Herein lies a creative space for the West, as there is a commonality of interest. One could look at the Karzai regime as a problem both for the West and for the Taliban. In many respects the Karzai regime has been a good partner for the West, but in many respects it has also been a hindrance. There have been myriad problems with the central government, which makes it an imperfect partner, one which has looser prospects regarding future sustainability and viability. Both the West and the Taliban have problems with Karzai.

You mentioned that the Taliban are indeed willing to offer concessions. How are these concessions and demands perceived by leaders in the West?

The answer to this question requires a great deal of “informed speculation” on my part; even though I have conducted interviews with key policymakers, I do not know for certain what senior leaders are thinking in Whitehall and Washington. Broadly speaking, the impression I get from these two governments is that Washington is hindered by a long-standing policy disagreement between those in favor of the military campaign through 2014 and those in favor of diplomatic measures.

The feedback I received from my RUSI report — as it was read by senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic — indicated that some felt that there were indications of very tantalizing possibilities in terms of concessions. But what we do not know for certain is whether the people we interviewed for our report can be seen as actively representative of the emerging dominant views within the Taliban, or whether they represent subordinate views. In that sense, the response was that it is necessary to take these interviews with a pinch of salt.

Some of the senior officials — people with very extensive experience dealing with the Taliban — in the CIA and ISAF felt that the report was interesting reading, but that there was not anything sufficient to justify any reduction in the military pressure, but that the stage was set to continue to the military pressure as much as possible, to cause as much attrition as possible to the Taliban before 2014, to run them down.

An article in the Long War Journal notes that “The Taliban have a deep bench of leaders with experience ranging back to the rise of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s.” To deal with the Taliban — whose command structure remains markedly amorphous — how have western leaders adapted or altered their parameters for negotiation, that is, how do they make lasting deals with such a multifaceted body?

This is a very pertinent question, and defines the modality of any negotiation. Part of the problem, of course, is that it is extremely difficult to reliably connect with the Taliban. How much faith can westerners have in the people with whom they are negotiating that they are accurately representing the views of the Quetta Shura Taliban leadership? Compounding this incredibly tough challenge is that only the Pakistanis know where most of the Quetta Shura leaders are, and thus the Americans are forced to work with Pakistan, which is not always in agreement with Washington. This tension has been exacerbated by the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, and the Americans are finding it extremely difficult to get reliable lines of communication into the Taliban. That failure, perhaps, more than any other factor, presents the most acute challenge to negotiations.

Are there any means by which to overcome these challenges? I am not sure, to be honest. Any discussion of this question gets into areas for which only a handful of people could provide any information.

The war in Afghanistan has often been described as the “forgotten war” in the West, as attention shifted first to Iraq and now to events in Iran, Syria, and North Africa. Yet for Afghans and the Taliban, the war remains terribly real. How have western leaders’ loss of attention affected their ability to play a more active role in potential negotiations within the 2014 framework?

The transition strategy is the perfect narrative for western leaders, as it means they simply hand over the problems in the country to Kabul. Thus they do not have to invest the kind of political capital that would be required to seriously pursue negotiations. There would have to be an extremely heavy spending of political capital on the part of the Obama Administration if they wanted to pursue such a goal, which would be high risk. If negotiations failed, it would be perceived as a failure of policy. And, according to all predictions, such negotiations would likely fail. It therefore seems much more politically prudent for the Obama Administration to follow the transition strategy, hand the problem to the Afghans, and continue to provide material resources to Kabul — which is expensive but politically cheaper.

For many Afghans, the Taliban conjure painful memories of the 1990s regime, although over the last decade the Taliban has assumed a proxy-role in many otherwise lawless regions. How does the organization’s dual “identity” affect its potential to play a viable role in a future Afghan coalition government?

This is a very interesting question. There was the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan from the mid-to-late 1990s until 2001. That perhaps more than the Taliban shadow government today is a more important reference point. Taliban shadow governments, in the areas that they control, have not been able to provide any real government service aside from the administration of justice. This service, however, is very important. The Taliban administers it very efficiently, if brutally, in contrast to the way in which the Afghan government does, very inefficiently and corruptly. Any other government service requires sustained presence — which is prevented by the ISAF and US presence.

It is interesting to compare Kabul’s governance ability with the Islamic Emirate from the 1990s. On the positive side, the Taliban brought stability to Afghanistan; the country was racked by absolutely vicious civil war, and the Taliban brought security and basic government services. That was quite an achievement. Against that, they followed a very strict “purity” agenda, instituting Sharia Law; this style was effectively government by the clerics, comprised of those who were neither professional nor competent to govern. In this sense, the Emirate was largely a failure and ineffective.

The people with whom I spoke for the RUSI report indicated that the Taliban had learned their lesson, and that they understood that they had made critical mistakes when they had tried to govern under the Islamic Emirate. In particularly, they know that they had handed too much power to the clerics, and they now understand the importance of political professionals. The assumption would be that, if you went into a power-sharing arrangement, and Taliban ministers were brought into the government, they would not seek a government similar to the one they had in the 1990s, and would instead promote professionalism and expertise amongst its ranks. The extent to which that outlook represents the predominant view across the Quetta Shura Taliban is unclear, since it is so hard to judge. But it is nevertheless interesting that this opinion was clearly recognized by the interlocutors with whom I spoke.

The New York Times reported that “The once ambitious American plans for ending the Afghanistan war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves.” Although you elucidate the compromises that western leaders can make with the Taliban, how can westerners assist Afghan politicians in negotiations with their former enemy?

My assumption is that the West will not want to play any sort of role bolstering the government in Kabul. The posture that western countries will likely assume post-2014 will center on the desire not to get involved in domestic Afghan politics. The international role after 2014 will likely be to provide security around the major urban centers, and to hold the country together so that a civil war amongst Afghan security forces can be prevented. This posture would be clever politically speaking. The minute western leaders say that they will become involved in Afghan politics is the moment that the problems from the last decade begin again. If anything, the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that Washington cannot own these domestic problems.

It is important to distinguish between political interests of western leaders and the national interests of western states. Clearly western states have national interests at stake in Afghanistan to ensure that the country does not return to civil war, a situation which will always hold very serious regional implications. They have an interest in seeing Al Qaeda held at bay, that no other terrorist group use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks. These clear national interests suggest that western leaders want, at a very minimal level, to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to the chaos into which it was plunged during the 1990s.

But in terms of the political interests of western leaders, they are concerned most with getting out of Afghanistan and staying out. The West has been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan for well over a decade, and what there is to show for this engagement is not great, especially considering the level of sacrifice and investment. The West will finally be out of Afghanistan — it will not have responsibility for combat operations after 2014 — and for political leaders it would be folly to challenge that exit opportunity. Wars are very easy to get into but hard to get out of, except in the case of outright defeat. Since there is such an excellent exit opportunity in 2014, why go against it?

Al Qaeda remains a potent force in the region, operating from Pakistan. Could a coalition government of Taliban and non-Taliban leaders better confront this threat, or is there a danger of them caving into — or even some parties welcoming — Al Qaeda into Afghanistan?

The strong impression I got from my interviewees was that the Taliban was simply waiting for the right opportunity to dump Al Qaeda, that the senior leadership felt aggrieved towards Al Qaeda. It is important to remember that the Quetta Shura faction did not welcome Al Qaeda into Afghanistan; another group did. The Quetta Shura today blame Al Qaeda for bringing the full power of the West to bear on top of them. A senior Taliban minister, for example, said to us: “overseas Jihad was never on our agenda. It was never of interest.” What Al Qaeda did was to undermine the Taliban’s project to create an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani network has very close ties to Al Qaeda, although they are formally in the Quetta Shura faction. So those more hard-line leaders would clearly have a very different view. But the more moderate faction claims that their view extends across the rest of the Taliban organization. This opinion would suggest that there would be no appetite whatsoever for welcoming Al Qaeda again. Moreover, once the war with the United States ends, the Taliban will have no more continued need for Al Qaeda. It serves a function right now, since it provides limited additional capability. But once the war ceases, the Taliban are going to drop Al Qaeda like a hot potato.

Thus there is also very little chance that Al Qaeda will, once dropped, be able to knife its own way back into Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda organization has been very deeply damaged in Afghanistan, and does not represent much of a presence at all. It seems that Al Qaeda’s base of operations has moved to parts of Africa instead.

For many policymakers around the world, the Taliban after 9/11 became associated with Al Qaeda and global Islamist extremism. How has the western understanding of the Taliban as a separate political entity evolved since 2001, and are perceptions of this group amongst key western leaders consistent with the reality on the ground amongst Taliban commanders?

I suspect that there is a difference between policy and political understanding, and I would be surprised to encounter a senior policymaker who does not understand the significant difference between the Quetta Shura Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda. For the Haqqanis, it is more difficult to dissemble these two groups, but they only represent one element of the Taliban. It is thus perfectly reasonable to open negotiations with the Quetta Shura, who would likely renounce Al Qaeda and take action to remove it from Afghani territory.

On the political side, politicians have been feeding the message of Al Qaeda-Taliban cooperation to their publics for so long that the two are undistinguishable. Therefore, perhaps, one could imagine that there is apolitical use in continuing that message. Many politicians in the US and UK, for example, do not have a very good grasp of the policy-side of Afghanistan. These politicians, who might even be involved in foreign affairs, do not fully understand the important differences between the two groups.

Is there a danger of misguided domestic politics affecting or derailing negotiations with the Taliban?

The real question is whether, in 2014 just before the withdrawal, there will be any serious push for negotiations. If I had to bet on the future, I would say that there are going to be very few efforts to speak with the Taliban. The Obama Administration has bigger issues to address, and has its eye — quite rightly — on a domestic policy agenda. The British government is already turning its attention to Pakistan as a much more important country, and the US is doing likewise. The Af-Pak experts in the White House and Whitehall are finally getting their leaders to understand that Pakistan poses a far greater problem for regional stability than does Afghanistan.  The kind of political engagement at the highest levels that would be required to push forward negotiations with the Taliban is simply not there, given that there are far greater policy issues with which these leaders will have to grapple.

US President Barack Obama labeled Afghanistan the “good war,” separating it from the fight in Iraq. Yet, many analysts have noted that American forces have done little to establish a political stability. Do perceptions of the “good war” run counter to feasible solutions to the conflict, that is, are western leaders ignoring avenues of reconciliation to instead pursue a more idealistic set of goals?

I think that this assessment certainly applies to the early stages of the campaign in Afghanistan. Looking back at December 2001, when the goals were set about what was to be achieved in Afghanistan, one could see hopelessly ambitious objectives being outlined. The West went into Afghanistan with a grossly inflated sense of what could be achieved, especially given the level of commitment by the US-led coalition and then by NATO.

Looking back at the 1990s’ peacekeeping operations in Somalia or Cambodia, which were hugely expensive multinational undertakings, the results were invariably very disappointing. To go into these shattered countries, which were deeply riven by political rivalries, thinking that they could be reconstructed into democratic states is a wildly and irresponsibly unrealistic goal. Over the years what has developed — at least at a political level — is a realism about what can be achieved, but unfortunately the “good war” narrative limits what leaders can tell their publics. Leaders do not want to declare that the war has been a poor investment of capital and lives, although it largely has been. Senior political leaders know that such a set of problems is incredibly complex, and they try to work within the limited framework of political capital that they are provided.

On the ground in Kabul or Helmand, there is a sense that when new military leaders arrive for the British or regional commands, the whole set of operations is rebooted. There is a new sense of optimism when new leaders arrive, and this is partly why the war has dragged on for so long. For example, the British experience such a change of leadership every six months, and the Americans every year. Invariably, though, by the end of their tours, these previously optimistic leaders realize that there is very little they can do to ameliorate the situation.

*** 

THEO FARREL is Professor of War in the Modern World at Kings College London and strategic advisor to the British government on operations in Afghanistan.

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