Why Is It So Hard to Negotiate With the Taliban?

An interview on why peace in Afghanistan has proven so elusive.
Afghan policemen stand next to a captured Taliban fighter after a gun battle near the village of Shajoy in Zabol province on March 22, 2008. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

It was meant to be a breakthrough in the long and troubled path toward peace in Afghanistan. But when the Taliban opened an office in Qatar last week and said it was ready to talk to the United States, the move immediately stalled -- chiefly over complaints from Kabul, where the government was angry at being sidelined. Why have reconciliation efforts with the insurgents so far failed? That's the topic of a new report by the New America Foundation and International Center for the Study of Radicalization called "Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History." Frud Bezhan spoke to co-author Ryan Evans.

Talking to the Taliban has been official policy for the Afghan government, the United States, and NATO for years. But, as the report says, it only became policy because of setbacks on the battlefield rather than deliberation and strategic choice. Has the lack of a clear strategy undermined efforts at reconciliation?

When the surge [of U.S. troops to Afghanistan] happened everyone was enamored by the idea of counterinsurgency as a cure-all for Afghanistan's problems. Once that quite didn't work out, Taliban talks became the new coin. But, of course, talks failed to deliver on their promises as well, not least because they were so poorly managed.

There were divisions within Afghanistan over the issue, but just as important are the divisions in the international community within certain countries. In the United States you had these major divisions between different departments of the government. Also, on the international level you've had Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Britain, and the United States all trying to play a key role in talks. It's too many cooks in the kitchen. There have been too many actors involved, they haven't been acting in a unified fashion at all, too many promises are being made by too many different parties, and so everything is a mess.

You have said that the strategic rationale for negotiating with the Taliban has never been clear, with stakeholders supporting talks for different reasons and at different times. How have these divisions played out in policy making?

At the beginning, talks were just seen as a way to peel off local and regional commanders and local insurgents from the broader movement, and it slowly worked its way up the chain from reintegration to reconciliation. But it did so unevenly and it was never properly explained how these negotiations at the lower level would play out at the higher level. We didn't know whether the purpose of talks was to split the Taliban movement between the hawks and the doves or to try to maintain a coherent movement under [Taliban spiritual leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar and talk directly to the top. So you had different stakeholders within the U.S. government and amongst the ISAF nations getting into talks and pursuing talks for different reasons and in different ways.

The report cites bad timing as one of the chief reasons why negotiations have yielded little progress. With the majority of international combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of next year, has the United States lost any leverage it had?

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