BACKGROUND: In the last few months, representatives of Western governments have been meeting extensively with representatives of the Taliban regarding how to end the war. A newly published study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) should again remind us that the likelihood of the Afghan and Western government representatives negotiating a sustained peace deal with the Taliban remains small. Several British scholars wrote this monograph, entitled “Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?”. They undertook a comprehensive study of the almost three decades’ worth of negotiations with the Afghan resistance movements, reviewing the Soviet-era talks with the Mujahedeen guerrillas as well as the Western and Afghan government negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, which became a major force in Afghan politics in the late 1990s and remains the main threat to the Western-backed Kabul government.
Yet, generalizing lessons from history is always precarious since two situations are never identical. If nothing else the actors in the later period can see what happened earlier, which can change their calculations. But one obvious pattern that jumps out at the reader of the ICSR study is that none of these negotiations ever yielded a peace agreement. The authors suggest some insightful reasons why this might be the case. Other reasons also present themselves.
One problem is that a large number of actors are seeking to negotiate with the Taliban or arrange such negotiations. In the U.S., the Defense and State Departments, as well as the White House National Security Council, have at various times assumed the lead role in the Afghan peace process. At the international level, in addition to NATO and the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have tried to organize peace talks. Their initiatives constantly overlap and distract from one another.
A reinforcing problem is that those groups seeking to negotiate with the insurgents constantly do so for diverse reasons, which allows the Afghan resistance to manipulate these differences for their own ends. Some advocates of talks genuinely aspire to achieve a lasting peace agreement, whereas others aim simply to divide and weaken the guerrillas by inducing some of their members to leave the battlefield. Some see negotiations as a “silver bullet” that could rid themselves of the Afghan albatross. An increasingly large group is now back talking with the insurgents in principle simply because they have not been able to achieve a military victory and cannot think of a better alternative.
Neither of these groups has really thought beyond the process to the desired outcome of any negotiations. The Taliban have been skilled at inducing competition among their various negotiation partners, at picking and choosing which parts of the proffered deals they find most appealing, at forum shopping – using one negotiating venue or process, then another that looks more attractive – as well as having different Taliban representatives communicate targeted but conflicting messages to their different opponents.
IMPLICATIONS: There are many potential spoilers that have the capacity to sabotage any Afghan peace agreement. One reason Western governments are so eager to induce Karzai to leave office with next year’s elections is that Karzai and other Afghan officials are upset that the Taliban leadership still refuses to deal with their government. The Taliban describe Karzai as a Western puppet and insist on dealing directly with his supposed foreign puppet masters. From the Taliban’s perspective, the talks are partly designed to humiliate Karzai by showing how irrelevant he is. Karzai knows this and is trying to take actions to disprove it—by making concessions and favorable comments to the Taliban to get them to talk to him, seeking alternative peace paths that do not work, and attacking the U.S. for seemingly seeking to negotiate a separate peace with the Taliban in a rush to exit the fight.
Conversely, Afghanistan’s main ethnic minorities – such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras – fear that Karzai will negotiate a secret deal with his fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban at their expense. They are already engaged in tactical hedging, building up their local militias and assembling weapons in preparation for a renewed civil war. NATO and other foreign governments are encouraging this process by providing weapons to their favorite proxies as well as the central Afghan National Security Forces, which might themselves break apart into ethnic and other factions in coming years.
In addition to divisions among the pro-government actors, the Taliban insurgents are also sharply divided by factions and geography. They are a highly decentralized movement and driven by local grievances such as disputes over land tenure or opium trade. These issues are largely unrelated to the central government’s policies and would not be solved with a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders. The ICSR study also finds recurring “wishful thinking” that a “moderate” faction of insurgent leaders is prepared to negotiate a successful agreement. But there is no concrete evidence that a powerful peace faction has ever been present in the Taliban movement. Instead, the Afghan insurgents have purged, and often killed, any of their leaders who defect or otherwise seem overly eager to reach a genuine peace deal with the Afghan government. In addition, it is not clear whether, even if a moderate Taliban leadership faction existed, it could deliver most of the rest of the movement to enforce any peace agreement. Taliban field commanders (the people with the guns) are distrustful of any negotiations. Even if Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban were to negotiate a peace agreement, the more radical Haqqani network, which enjoys the patronage of key figures within Pakistan’s national security establishment, could fight on in alliance with local al-Qaeda remnants.
Securing Pakistan’s support is essential for achieving an enduring peace agreement. Pakistani officials have insisted on having a key role in any peace settlement, and have disrupted talks from which they have been excluded by arresting the senior Taliban representatives involved. Influential groups in the Pakistani government dispose of numerous Afghan proxies that they can induce and empower to disrupt any peace process as well as wreak havoc inside Afghanistan. Many in Islamabad see Afghanistan as a chessboard where Pakistan and India jockey for influence. Recent reconciliation efforts between Kabul and Islamabad have lost steam and their leaders have resumed denouncing one another for their bad faith. Like the Taliban, Pakistan has an incentive to delay since time is on its side, with its bargaining power increasing as Western influence declines.
CONCLUSION: Even if the talks start soon, the experience of other negotiations seeking to end a civil war suggest they will likely take considerable time to realize a deal. The parties need to feel comfortable working with one another, they need to compromise their initial demands, setbacks and misinterpretations constantly occur, within or outside the talks, and then the negotiators need time to sell any deal to colleagues. Then they need to implement the agreement and keep everyone on board. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine that all these steps can occur before all NATO combat forces leave the country by the end of next year.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.