March 1, 2010  

Essay: Afghan reconciliation

Negotiations with the Taliban will be tricky, but critical

Everyone from Paris to Pakistan thinks reconciliation between the Taliban and the Hamid Karzai government is a positive move toward peace. Saudi Arabia is involved, various countries want to set up a fund, Afghanistan wants to hold a nationwide jirga, and Islamabad has offered to mediate with the Taliban. Tired of the heavy burden in blood and treasure, some Americans have also joined the reconciliation bandwagon. Other analysts now see a reinforced Western presence and impending military offensives as an ideal lever to make the Taliban an offer they can’t refuse.

For their part, the Taliban leadership may be a hard sell. Last year saw the most fighting since 2002. The last two years have been a time of increasing Taliban battlefield successes, and increasing Western casualties. The Taliban have attacked cities, exerted control over some provinces, and have shadowed governors and judges working in every province. The Taliban are not eager to negotiate, but the U.S. surge and Pakistani pressure could well change their minds.

While no one could disagree with welcoming individual Taliban back into the fold of civilization, a political deal with the Taliban movement will be difficult to manage. If the Afghan government sits down prematurely with the Taliban, it will do so from a position of weakness. To increase the prospects for Kabul’s success in negotiation, we will have to reverse that weakness. In plain language, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will have to strike a decisive blow against the Taliban, while holding out the carrot of a potential settlement.

Negotiators will have to deal with a number of complicating factors. For one, the Taliban has many factions. In the South, we have the original Taliban, but in the East and the Northeast, the fighters come from the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction of Hezbi Islami, which has been at war since 1978. Complicating the issue, there are now multiple Pakistani Taliban factions, some of which operate in both countries. When we talk to the Taliban, we will have to deal with its many parts. The divisions provide us opportunities for divide-and-conquer tactics, but it also means that some factions may reconcile while others continue to fight.

Second, politics in Afghanistan are ethnic and tribal. Pashtuns are only 40 percent of the Afghan population, and the other 60 percent of the population are Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, etc., who were all treated harshly by the Taliban. While Karzai may see some of the Taliban as wayward brothers, his non-Pashtun allies are likely to be less forgiving. A premature political reconciliation could precipitate Pashtun versus non-Pashtun tensions that could become a serious problem. It will be hard to bring all of the Afghan ethnic groups on board, but war weariness and the need for development aid are powerful incentives to forgive and forget.

Third, the Taliban regime also conducted numerous crimes against humanity for which there has never been an accounting. In addition to the extreme repression of the entire Afghan citizenry — no kites, no music, no female education, bizarre human rights practices, executions at soccer matches etc. — thousands of Afghans, especially non-Pashtuns, were killed by the Taliban. Compounding that problem, the contemporary Taliban usually try to win hearts and minds through terror tactics and repression. Even today, when they are trying to attract more followers with propaganda and Sharia-based dispute resolution, the Taliban’s approval ratings in most polls does not reach 20 percent. The Taliban rule of about five years was also a practical disaster for Afghanistan. Along with their bloody record as insurgents, the Taliban’s leaders no doubt remember that five years into their “rule,” only three countries had recognized them.

Reconcilers will also have to come to grips with the Taliban’s contemporary record, its poor reputation, and many war crimes. Today’s Taliban are unlawful combatants who live by planting improvised explosive devices, kidnapping civilians and destroying reconstruction projects in the countryside. It will be difficult to sit down and negotiate with people whose signature tactics are burning girls’ schools and cutting off the heads of non-combatants. Even Mullah Omar is counseling restraint to try to soften their image. Clearly, mainstream Taliban leaders are going to have to turn their back on their heinous “standard operating procedures” to rejoin the civilized world.


Finally, the Taliban remain close allies of al-Qaida. While there is a tendency to see them as misguided, fundamentalist bumpkins, the Taliban is in league with al-Qaida, and rarely deny it. Before 9/11, they had a strong, symbiotic relationship. In 2001, the Taliban were ousted for protecting their “guest,” Osama bin Laden and his thousands of foreign fighters. While al-Qaida was once a more powerful partner, it is still able to advise Taliban commanders and teach them the finer points of IEDs and suicide bombing techniques.

According to Dexter Filkins writing in the New York Times, no less a figure than Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the summer of 2008 asked Mullah Omar to disavow in writing a link between the Taliban and al-Qaida. He never received an answer. David Rohde of the New York Times, who was kidnapped by the Haqqani Network for seven months, believes that the al-Qaida-Taliban link is thriving. Rohde wrote in October 2009:

“Over those months [in captivity], I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “al-Qaida lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with al-Qaida that spanned the Muslim world.”

Difficult as it will be, however, reconciliation has significant support and political momentum. It should not be ruled out. Irregular conflicts rarely end, as World War II did, in a surrender ceremony on a battleship, or, as in Vietnam, with one side decisively defeating the other. Political compromises and negotiated settlements are the norm. The Afghan government and its enemies, fanatic as they may be, know this history well.

To proceed systematically in Afghanistan, we have first to reinforce the foundation for reconciliation efforts. To achieve favorable conditions for negotiations, ISAF must first step up its military efforts. U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus is correct: We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan. ISAF forces must focus on protecting the population. At the same time, however, we can create an enemy more eager to negotiate if we defeat Taliban offensive operations, destroy their field forces, dry up their means of support and threaten their sanctuaries.

In the short run, more Afghan and NATO troops, as well as more civilian advisers and aid money, will be essential. In other words, the U.S. and its coalition partners must carry out the plan laid out by President Obama and pursue the enemy ruthlessly, rigorously and continuously. Cutting off Taliban funds and support will be as important as destroying their cadres on the battlefield. The biggest mistake we could make would be to slack off on the battlefield while the Taliban plays the talk-fight-talk-subvert card. The examples of U.S. negotiations with North Korea and North Vietnam provide cold comfort to U.S. negotiators. Talking while fighting is not a strong suit for the United States.

In preparing for the future, the NATO nations must also continue to build Afghan police and military capacity to stand alone. We have done better at this in Iraq than in Afghanistan, but Iraq had more human capital. Building across-the-board Afghan capacity for governance and management must be the top long-term priority. In the end, better training and an increase in more military and civilian advisers will be more important than additional U.S. brigade combat teams.

Thanks to the dedicated work of the Richard Holbrooke team and the support of U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Pakistan at last seems ready to pressure the Afghan Taliban and help with reconciliation. Beset by its own Taliban extremists, the Pakistani leadership may well have come to the conclusion that a Taliban-dominated, weak Afghanistan is not in its interest. The Pakistan government is no doubt eager to be shut of Taliban of any stripe. Again, more aid —military and economic — for Pakistan must be part of the reconciliation program. Working toward a long-term strategic partnership remains an important element in the equation.

Reconciliation and attendant negotiations are issues on which the Afghan government must lead. We cannot navigate the maze of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics. Only the Afghan leadership can do that, and it has been one of President Karzai’s abiding strengths. Even public suggestions by Western officials about the desirability of reconciliation are risky. One theme for our public diplomacy should be that we are in Afghanistan for the long haul. Our diplomats have done a good job of emphasizing this theme. It is critical: As long as the coalition is “in” Kabul, the Taliban know that they will be “out”; they must learn to believe that reconciliation is their best hope.

Inside this challenge, Kabul is first likely to go around Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis, and Hekmatyar to encourage the rank and file of the resistance to come home as individuals. This has every chance of working well, especially if these reconciliation programs are coupled with financial incentives, encouragement from Pakistan, and intense battlefield pressure by ISAF and the Afghan Security Forces.


Political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban (or any of their factions) should require a number of key conditions. First, the Taliban must verifiably lay down their arms. They must accept the Afghan Constitution and agree to operate within it. War criminals and close associates of al-Qaida will be ineligible for reintegration. The Taliban must also forsake the criminal enterprises that have become their lifeline and agree to become a legitimate political party inside Afghanistan. There can be no offers of territorial power sharing or extra constitutional arrangements, but later, Taliban cabinet officers and appointed provincial or district governors should not be ruled out. Taliban fighters could clearly be integrated into the ethnically integrated Afghan security forces after retraining and indoctrination. Taliban farmers can be given stipends or even land as an incentive.

Political reconciliation, first with individual fighters and then with the Taliban factions, will be difficult but not impossible. It represents a potential way to end the 32 years of war that have beset this land. It will require great Western political, military and economic efforts during the reconciliation period and close attention to U.S.-Afghan relations in the long-term future. The cooperation of regional partners, especially Pakistan, will be critical. This process is likely to take years, but it carries with it the promise of the first peace in Afghanistan in three decades. It will be risky, but it is a chance we should take. AFJ

JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. He is a 30-year Afghanistan watcher, whose publications on the subject date back to 1980. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Defense Department or government.