Former Taliban fighters hand over their weapons to Afghan police as part of a reconciliation process in Herat, Afghanistan, May 13, 2012.
"Why it's Time for Talks with the Taliban"
Comment is Free
Op-Ed, The Guardian
September 10, 2012
Author: Matt Waldman, Research Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The Taliban may not be as inflexible as feared. But we won't discover what they'd settle for until there is genuine dialogue
We should welcome the news that the Taliban are reportedly open to the idea of negotiating a general ceasefire and even a peace settlement. The peace process in Afghanistan is at risk from spoilers on all sides and fraught with challenges. But we owe it to the Afghan people, and to all those who have suffered in the conflict, to give it a try.
It would be a grave mistake to assume the Taliban would only settle for absolute power. Taliban leaders know they stand no chance of seizing power now or in the near future. They know that even coming close would reinvigorate and potentially augment the coalition of forces ranged against them. That could trigger a civil war, which they are anxious to avoid. Even if they could seize power, they would be pounded by drones, ostracised and dependent on Pakistan. The leadership craves the opposite: safety, recognition and independence.
The Taliban rose to power in the 1990s, promising to bring order in place of turmoil. But since 2001, the expectations of ordinary Afghans have changed. They not only want order and justice but reliable public services, basic freedoms and a say over their own affairs. Antediluvian theocracy has had its day, and thinking Talibs know it.
The Arab awakening has not gone unheeded. A Taliban think-piece leaked last year asked what kind of elections they should support and how the government should meet the people's needs. They yearn to be taken seriously as a credible, national political force.
The Taliban remain powerful in much of the country. But they have suffered big losses and are facing pressure, even armed resistance, from communities in provinces such as Ghazni, Laghman and Nangahar. The cohesion and discipline of the movement is under strain. And while the impending withdrawal of foreign forces will allow the Taliban to claim some sort of success, it also removes the movement's biggest single motivating force.
In addition to this, most Taliban leaders deeply resent their dependence on, and manipulation by, Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI. Having spent a decade or more in Pakistan, from where they run the insurgency, they hope to return in safety to their homeland.
The justification for military action against the Taliban in 2001 was the movement's sheltering of al-Qaida. Today, most of al-Qaida's leaders live in Pakistan, and most analysts see the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaida as fragile and insubstantial.
Last month Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, said: "The Islamic emirate of Afghanistan wants good relations and mutual interactions with the world … [and] assures all the world that it will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any one." Or simply, we won't shelter al-Qaida again. We might not take his word for it, but it suggests there's a basis for discussion.
The Taliban are not monolithic; its fighters have varied motivations. Many fight because they believe the US seeks to conquer Afghanistan and subvert its religion or culture. Some are driven by the predation and degeneracy of the Afghan government and its warlord allies. Still others fight for personal, local or tribal reasons.
There are undoubtedly extreme elements within the movement. The Haqqani group, responsible for some of the most gruesome attacks in Kabul, is due to be designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US.
The aggressive campaign of air strikes and night raids initiated by General Petraeus all but wiped out a generation of moderate insurgent commanders. But the fanatics are still a minority.
Broadly the Taliban want the withdrawal of foreign forces, a share of power and the implementation of sharia law. They probably seek a major role in justice and anti-corruption, and influence in social, religious and educational affairs. But what exactly their demands are, and whether they are compatible with human rights or the aspirations of the Afghan people, is impossible to say until a genuine dialogue is under way.
The new study by the Royal United Services Institute suggests the Taliban might even accept a ceasefire and the presence of US forces in a peacekeeping capacity. There are a range of interpretations of sharia within the movement. It may be that the Taliban's position on issues such as the constitution or girls' education is not as radical or inflexible as we fear.
Indeed, comparative studies show that insurgent or paramilitary groups tend to overstate their demands for propaganda purposes and to bolster morale, and that their goals often diminish over time, as with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or Colombia's National Liberation Army.
Talks could help to break down some of the misapprehensions that have inflamed the conflict. As in many other insurgencies, talks might also help to reduce the frequency or intensity of violence. In the absence of talks there is little reason to expect anything other than protracted conflict. There may even be an escalation of violence as the Taliban and other power-holders vie to occupy the space created by Nato's hurried departure. And given the deficiencies of Afghan national security forces, we should expect expansion of Taliban control in the rural south, south-east and west. All this explains why all polls and field research indicate that a clear majority of Afghans, both men and women, favour talks.
It is hard to believe that seven years since major hostilities began there is still no substantive, regular dialogue between the principal parties.
Last year's progress has stalled due to differences over terms and preconditions relating to the establishment of a Taliban office, a US-Taliban prisoner exchange, and the opening of formal talks. Especially problematic is the Taliban's willingness to talk to the US first, and only later to the Afghan government.
The priority should be to open substantive, multiparty talks without preconditions.
But as the troops and aid flows recede, so does the international community's ability to influence the parties, establish a peace process and protect the gains made since 2001. The involvement of agreed mediators or facilitators, currently absent, could help to unblock talks.
No channel can succeed without Pakistan's support. Whether or not Pakistan has a seat at the table, its officials should ultimately be involved in talks. And as the dialogue strengthens, it should expand to involve northern and central Afghan political factions.
It should be supplemented by a broader reconciliation process involving representatives of all parts of Afghan society. Any future peace, whether achieved through a single settlement or patchwork of understandings, will only be sustainable if it reflects the aspirations of ordinary Afghans.
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