A central fallacy of the debate surrounding whether to negotiate with the Taliban is that it is automatically seen as giving in. This is wrong—and a dangerous blurring of principles. Negotiations would provide an alternative to violence for those insurgent factions in Afghanistan who are willing to compromise and be drawn into a constructive nation-building process, and would thus weaken the most radical of elements. Any talks with the Taliban would also supply critical intelligence on the attitudes and goals, internal structure, and connections between groups - all important indicators of strategic capabilities and crucial for tactical prioritization.
Barring the Taliban from any form of political involvement destabilizes the post-conflict peacebuilding phase. It leaves insurgent elements with only one strategy: to exhaust the Coalition troops and return the country to a state of chaos. If things continue as they are, the international community will either have to match the Taliban militarily, or co-opt them into the nation-building process. Given the number of troops in Afghanistan, it looks as though the international community has already made its choice—understandably so, given that a similar military-civilian ratio as existed in Kosovo would mean putting 800,000 boots on Afghanistan’s dusty ground.
Nevertheless, co-option is a serious strategic decision, and one which should not be taken arbitrarily. Neither should it be adopted solely for reasons of military expediency, as when Afghani warlords were incorporated into the security and political landscape during and shortly after the initial invasion.
Any negotiations should take place primarily on the most local level and with as much transparency as possible, except in cases where doing so may endanger the lives of those involved. Should the Taliban leadership then decide to also enter into such negotiations, it should again be done only in consultation with the local populace. This is important in order to verify the legitimacy of their claim for local support—which in turn is important in order to make it absolutely clear that the international community will not budge from its core values and central goals: turning Afghanistan into a working nation-state based on the rule of law and democratic legitimacy. Such an approach would have the added advantage of tackling the political problem of engaging with a group that is classified as a “Terrorist Organization” by the United Nations—since engagement would take place with local stakeholders or factions at best.
The Taliban are not as unified as reports about them might suggest. Reports of “pro-Taliban” areas which are not invariably anti-peace or anti-development have emerged—as expressed by Thomas Ruettig of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. It is entirely possible that the harsh, fundamentalist practices of the Taliban during their time as Afghanistan’s de facto government are not necessarily indicative of ideology, but rather of how far they were willing to go in order to pacify an extremely fractured country. The Taliban turnaround on poppy cultivation–-banning it in 2000 and 2001 on religious grounds, but now supporting it in areas under Taliban control—shows an understanding of when other factors, such as resource generation, should take precedence over ideology or religion.
It is no secret that the Afghani government is already in negotiations with Taliban or pro-Taliban factions. President Karzai has repeatedly expressed his openness towards talks with the Taliban and a May 9 parliamentary motion in the Meshrano Jirga, Afghanistan’s “Upper House,” explicitly called for the assumption of such negotiations. We should acknowledge the simple necessity for Afghanistan to do so and then support the government, based on the above criteria. Doing so will provide them with increased leverage and give them more ability to bring clout to the negotiating table. It will also give the ISAF countries direct influence on these negotiations, which are already happening whether we like it or not. Negotiations with the Taliban may be the West’s most effective tool to successfully “divide and conquer” the Afghani insurgency. Refusal to do so thus far has led us into the result of the only alternative: “unite and fight.”
Niklas Keller holds an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Before joining the Atlantic Community in May of 2007, he worked in program management for a number of NGOs and as a Research Assistant for United Nations University, Tokyo.
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