Taliban talks: folly or fortune?

Reconciliatory negotiations may be ongoing between the Afghan government, the Taliban and, perhaps, the US.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopes talks with the Taliban could lead to increased stability [EPA]

Vague stories concerning contacts between the government of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and various insurgent factions are hardly new, but those which began to proliferate again this week contained a new twist: That US and Nato forces are actively facilitating them.

To say that these stories should be taken with a large grain of salt is to vastly understate the case.  First, no one claims that these are anything more than preliminary discussions, and no one has suggested that they even remotely approach the level of serious negotiations. Second, no one appears willing, or perhaps even able, to say who is involved, from either side. 

The members of Afghan President Karzai’s 70-member “peace council” appear to know less about what is going on than most. “Senior Taliban officials” are engaged in the talks, say some; “people who report to Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura,” say others. 

Given the high degree of decentralized organization of the Taliban infrastructure, however, and its degree of penetration in large parts of the country, those descriptions could encompass a very large number of people, and include players far removed from the topmost level.

Plan for success?

Whatever the reality, and however far removed we might appear to be from a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict, US officials would be well advised to follow an old operational admonition: Plan for success. 

That may seem obvious, but in fact it is not; for it is all too common for those engaged in a long-term endeavor with initially remote prospects of success to fail to make timely, systematic provisions for the ultimate vindication of their efforts, often until it is far too late. It is easy to find oneself in the position of the proverbial dog who chases the automobile, with little thought of the serious trouble in store if he should catch it.  

Among all the stories circulating, there are few indications that US or Nato officials have much substantive involvement in the current discussions, direct or indirect, beyond simply allowing them to occur. Robert Gates, the US defense secretary, has stressed close consultations with the Afghan government as this nascent process goes forward, and asserts that it is being conducted in full transparency between Afghanistan and its allies. 

Given the endemic distrust between the Karzai regime and the US government, however, and the apparent disparity between the two sides’ calculations regarding US intentions moving forward, it seems likely that Gates’ words are part desideratum and part admonition, rather than a description of reality. And in any case, all agree that any negotiating process, if it is to be authentic, must be Afghan-led.

Agreements and US interests

Perhaps US officials feel their interests are covered in virtue of having come to agreement with the Karzai government on the minimum acceptable provisions of any ultimate Afghan peace accord: That insurgents reject al-Qaeda, lay down their arms, and accept the Afghan Constitution. 

Genuine adherence to those provisions, however, will be hard to verify in advance, and easy to reverse in any case. The temptation for Afghan government negotiators to fudge adherence to these dictates will be considerable, particularly under the leadership of the current Afghan president, whose penchant for wishful thinking is well-documented.  And while the recently-selected “peace council” may be heavily weighted with traditional enemies of the Taliban, council head and former President Burnahuddin Rabbani perhaps chief among them, the council’s role in any future talks has yet to be defined.

In such discussions as US officials may be having with the Karzai government over the potential political role of senior insurgents who may eventually opt to enter the political process, it would be well to seek agreement on what form the Taliban’s political involvement might take, and how it would be implemented. 

It seems most unlikely that insurgents, should they come over in any strength, will settle for a few ministries and the chance to run for the National Assembly.  They are far more likely to want a share of power on the ground in the provinces, particularly those in which they currently hold a large degree of military sway.

On the one hand, it would seem that the centralization of formal power in Kabul, the capital, would facilitate this process. Since Karzai has the power to name district and provisional governors, as well as all manner of local officials, he would be able to appoint former insurgents to positions of genuine authority as an outcome of negotiations. 

Taliban unaccountable?

But this, in fact, is a measure of the problem with the current system. To simply replace one set of locally-unaccountable officials for another, particularly when the new officials are affiliated with an organization which has never accepted any brakes on its power other than those imposed by its own obscurantist version of Islamic orthodoxy, is a prescription for disaster. 

Unless integrated into a system which demands and reinforces local approval, how are former insurgent leaders to be held to account if they violate their covenants?  It will surely not be the Afghan National Army, which cannot impose itself now in the areas of the Taliban’s greatest potential strength, even with the support of the US and NATO.

And even if the Afghan Army should continue to grow in strength and ability to project force into the Pashtun-dominated areas of the East and South, unless there are locally-organized centers of power which can be marshaled and supported to oppose potential future Taliban-inspired misrule, to include tolerance of internationally-oriented violent extremists, the chances of effectively opposing the Taliban in these areas will be greatly reduced.

There are many reasons to press for sweeping changes to the Afghan Constitution, and to break Kabul’s centralized monopoly of power in the provinces.  Decentralizing power in Afghanistan in a manner which conforms to the country’s past history and cultural norms is a key to taking effective action against corruption and to garnering local support for an effective counter-insurgency against the Taliban.

To these we should now add the necessity of building up legitimate local centers of power which will be capable of holding such insurgent leaders as may be induced to enter the political process to abide by the rules of the political game, to appeal for genuine local support, and to accommodate themselves to the popular will in ways they have not been willing to do previously.

President Karzai is sure to strongly oppose such reforms, as they would serve to greatly limit his power.  There is nothing to suggest that achieving constitution change will be easy. But if the foreign supporters of the current Afghan government do not take the necessary steps to ensure that the negotiated peace which they profess to encourage — and which even US military leaders on the ground agree will be the only way to end the current hostilities — in fact sustains the goals which led them into Afghanistan in the first place, all their efforts are likely to come to naught.

In short, as the US and Nato set about trying to support a responsible negotiating process between the Afghan government and at least some elements of the insurgency, they had better begin now to plan and prepare for success.            

Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.  


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