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?

The timing for talks could not be any worse. We only began to [engage in] talks once [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama had already announced that we would be withdrawing troops. We have been withdrawing troops at a fevered pitch, and then we turn to the Taliban and say, 'Hey, we're leaving but we would really like to come to some sort of agreement on our way out.' That's just absurd. We're running very short on both carrots and sticks -- things we can offer the Taliban and things we can use to intimidate the Taliban into a deal -- because we're leaving. This isn't to say that leaving is a bad decision, but certainly within the context of talks it doesn't bode well.

You have said that the United States has failed to learn lessons from the Soviet Union's disastrous campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. What are those lessons and can Washington still change course to avoid repeating past mistakes?

[The Soviet Union] faced the same problems, such as a difficult [Afghan] leader at the top who was against the idea of talks and who was against implementing the necessary reforms that might mitigate or reform the conflict. They also dealt with a recalcitrant Pakistan who was supporting nonstate actors in Afghanistan. Pakistan's interests haven't changed much [between] then and now. We also have the same experience with announcing troop withdrawal [before reaching a peace settlement]. So the Taliban [like the mujahedin in the 1980s] understood that they could hold on and negotiate from a position of strength once the [the Soviets] were leaving. I worry that anything we can do now is too little too late. We're really in a damage-control situation. The best we can hope for is to position the Afghan government tactically and strategically in such a way so that they can survive on the battlefield while negotiating for themselves after 2014.

For there to be any breakthrough in talks, what needs to happen, in your opinion?

The first is that the United States needs to apply enough pressure to ensure that [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai does indeed step down next year [when his second and final term expires and a presidential election is held] and doesn't remain in the presidential palace. That needs to happen because he isn't someone that can take Afghanistan into its next phase and stabilize Afghanistan.

The second thing is that there needs to be a true Afghan ownership of this peace process, not just an Afghan face. The United States needs to step back from the process and only be there in a supporting role.

The third thing is that there needs to be some major substantive constitutional reform over the structure of the Afghan government. A devolution of power [is needed] so [the Afghan government] is not so centralized. The Afghan government cannot continue to survive as this centralized regime and indeed it doesn't in practice. But the current constitutional construct makes any peace talks very difficult.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.