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.

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.

But is forging a peace deal "by, with and through" Afghan leaders really possible? A multi-faceted, multi-level peace process that includes women and minorities may be far more than the Karzai government is able to manage. Most Kabul officials lack the capability even to identify, much less understand or work to solve, local problems. If they did, they might have already won the war. And how much concern has Karzai shown for the plight of Afghan women? He has only appointed a sprinkling of women and civil society types in the High Peace Council, assigned to deal with the Taliban. Most of the members are male, with a heavy representation of warlords. If Karzai and company are beyond redemption, negotiations are unlikely to save them.

Even though a successful deal remains unlikely, negotiations may still be worthwhile. The Pentagon plans to spend about $120 billion on the war in 2011 alone. If there is only a tiny chance -- let's say one in a thousand -- that negotiations would eliminate that expenditure, a rational gambler would say it is worth spending $120 million on negotiations. There is no way negotiations will cost a fraction of that sum. The largest possible expense would be the Afghan government providing housing and jobs for defected Taliban.

What you find out about the enemy can be well worth whatever commitment is required in negotiations. In my experience, there is nothing like staring a military commander in the face, asking him what his war objective is, and discussing alternative means to achieve it.

I asked the commander of the Bosnian Army that question in 1995, having been told by both the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community that his objective was to conquer 100 percent of the country's territory, at the time two-thirds occupied by the Bosnian Serb Army. He responded that his president had told him to fight until all the refugees and displaced people could go home. This was significantly different from the consensus understanding in Washington. His objective was achieved in principle at the Dayton peace talks later the same year by negotiation.

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. Of course the effect is mutual: the enemy will also discover how committed and unified the Afghan government and the coalition are or are not, and what we might be willing to trade off to achieve early withdrawal.

Such mutual discovery does not always improve matters. I once asked a presidential advisor in Kabul whether it would help relations with Pakistan if Afghanistan were to recognize the de facto border -- the Durand Line -- as the legal boundary between the two countries. He responded that he would not want to close off options for future generations. I can't imagine that people in Islamabad react positively when they hear this suggestion that Afghanistan may have designs on Pakistani territory.

Bottom line, negotiations are a good bet even if they don't end in a deal. But Afghan political leaders are unlikely to be able to lead a complicated process and may be more likely to cut a deal behind closed doors, without the involvement of women or anything resembling civil society. Such a deal would not resolve underlying drivers of conflict and would require -- like the deals Washington cut behind closed doors on Bosnia and Kosovo -- a massive international implementation effort. Even though peace talks are certainly worthwhile, there are no easy solutions to these dilemmas. Negotiations may be a good idea, but they are not a short cut out of Afghanistan.