Why It's Time to Negotiate With the Taliban

Peace talks won't be easy, and may be likely to fail, but they're worth the risk


Delegates of an Afghan peace jirga in Kabul discuss negotiating with the Taliban. By Ahmad Masood / Reuters

News that the U.S. may negotiate with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan raises many questions, the most important of which is, should we, or shouldn't we? That question has generated a small cyberspace library of its own in recent weeks, with the consensus so far in favor. It is widely believed that there are at least informal official talks about talks going on behind closed doors. But should we harbor any continuing doubts? And what can we expect from negotiations?

The arguments in favor are often based on the explicit proposition that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, with the implicit understanding that the U.S. will want to get out as soon after 2014 -- the date fixed by NATO for turnover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government -- as possible. If we really believe there is no military solution, why bother fighting to what conflict management experts call a "mutually hurting stalemate," a condition in which neither side can improve its position by further military effort? If we want to get out, why not make the arrangements now rather than waiting for what we believe to be inevitable? Much blood and treasure can be saved and little of value lost.

This line of thinking has been bolstered recently by research suggesting that at least some of the Taliban can be divided from Al Qaeda. The Taliban is an Afghan movement with national ambitions to establish an Islamic state. Al Qaeda has much broader international goals that go far beyond Afghanistan, to recreating a supra-national caliphate encompassing the entire Muslim world, in some interpretations the entire globe. These two objectives are not only different; they are incompatible. Maybe we can keep Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, even if we agree to let the Taliban back in.

A skilled negotiator will discover more in two days of conversation with an adversary than all the intelligence we've collected so far in ten years of war.

However, the Taliban have now been fighting for a generation without serious signs of fatigue, at least until recently, and may believe they can get what they want by fighting on. If the Taliban feel they are winning, they will have little incentive to negotiate. They may also doubt that the U.S. is really prepared to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, at least with respect to Al Qaeda. President Karzai's talk about permanent U.S. bases will have given them doubts as well.

There are other points of potentially irreducible contention. The Taliban, who are not experienced democrats and lack confidence in democratic processes, would naturally expect a guarantee of a share in political power, both at the local level and in Kabul. Many Afghan women, who were not even allowed to go to school under their rule, could suffer dearly under a strong Taliban role in governance. Nor would the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and other minorities who fought against and defeated the Taliban be likely to welcome their return.

Many advocates of negotiations therefore want to make the talks "inclusive" -- bringing in not only top government officials but also civil society (especially women's organizations) as well as local leaders. After all, the Karzai government has little real control of rural areas, and many of the more contentious issues involve local disputes that will need to be settled by local leaders if the Taliban are going to reintegrate peacefully. As one advocate put it, negotiations must be run "by, with and through the Afghan people" in order to work.

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Daniel Serwer is a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute. He writes regularly at peacefare.net.

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