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
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.