Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?
- A new report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the New America Foundation provides a history of attempts to talk to the Taliban. The publication of the report coincides with the announcement that the US will begin direct negotiations with the Taliban within days.
- Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History? was written by a team of researchers from King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London with expertise on Afghanistan, other negotiations with insurgent groups, and Anglo-American foreign policy. It provides a history of previous attempts to negotiate with Afghan insurgents during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and negotiations with the Taliban since the start of the NATO mission there in 2001.
- The report explains why previous negotiations have repeatedly failed to deliver any success or political breakthrough. It argues that attempts to talk to the Taliban in recent years have been characterised by wishful thinking and a lack of strategic direction.
- As one last attempt is made to negotiate with the Taliban, history suggests that a viable or sustainable peace settlement will be extremely difficult to achieve. If there is any chance of success, however, the first thing that negotiators should do is to learn from the failures which have characterised previous efforts at peace talks.
TALKS TO OCCUR ‘WITHIN DAYS’
At the conclusion of the recent G8 summit, the US announced that it will open direct negotiations with the Taliban. White House officials have stated that talks will begin within a matter of days in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have established a political office. The move comes as the Afghan government assumes full responsibility for security in the country.
Despite some concerns expressed by Afghan President Karzai, US President Obama has stated that talks are a necessary and important breakthrough. UK Prime Minister David Cameron also supported the move. Speaking at the G8 in Northern Ireland, Cameron cited the example of the peace process there, which is widely regarded as a model for successful negotiations involving former terrorist combatants.
While the US and the Taliban have engaged in tentative and indirect contacts for a number of years, this is the first time that direct negotiations have been attempted and the first occasion on which the Taliban has agreed to talk to the Afghan government. It is also significant that Pakistan, which has previously acted as a spoiler in negotiations, has now expressed its willingness to support the talks.
HOPE OVER HISTORY?
Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History? charts the history of talks with the Taliban and their forebears. It explains that such talks are nothing new and that contacts have existed between the Taliban and the West for many years. More importantly, the report argues that attempts to negotiate with the Taliban since 2001 have been characterised by wishful thinking, bad timing, poor management and the ‘chaos of good intentions’.
The findings are therefore directly relevant to the direct negotiations which will begin in Doha in the next few days. They are as follows:
Talking to the Taliban became official policy by osmosis rather than deliberation and strategic choice. The idea has never been systematically evaluated or implemented in a clear-minded fashion. Some advocates of talks have overstated their case by stressing the ‘ripeness’ of the Taliban for a deal, while many of those who have converted to supporting negotiations since 2009 have done so too late to achieve any serious benefits. This echoes the experience of the Soviet Union trying to negotiate itself out of Afghanistan.
The strategic rationale for talks has never been clear. Those who have advocated talks with the Taliban have done so for different reasons at different times. This has clouded and confused official policy. Some hoped to ‘peel off’ low-level insurgents, whereas others preferred to encourage the development of a Taliban political party; some hoped to divide the movement, whereas others hoped to massage it in such a way that Taliban ‘doves’ were strengthened over ‘hawks’; some hoped to deal directly with the movement’s leaders while others saw them as the chief obstacles to progress. Many of these strands were in operation at the same time, contributing to a sense that talks were conducted in a strategic vacuum.
The real ‘game-changer’ in Afghanistan is the departure of NATO troops, not a moderate awakening within the Taliban movement. A shift toward ‘moderation’ among the Taliban has been much overstated and not borne out by events on the ground. The real impetus for the tentative talks which have taken place are the major troop withdrawals that began in 2012. The internal dynamics of the Taliban movement are in flux but it is far from clear whether its future trajectory will make it more amenable to a peace deal.
Both the Soviet and ISAF/NATO experiences in Afghanistan illustrate the difficulties of trying to strike a bargain while rushing for the exit. The Taliban have adopted a ‘talk-fight’ strategy in which they have expressed openness to negotiations, while continuing attacks on NATO forces. If anything the pace of attacks has increased in recent weeks.
As we move into the last phase of the ISAF mission, with a renewed (and perhaps final) effort to reinvigorate the talks, the first step should be to learn from previous mistakes. Going forward, expectations for success are not high. But the lessons of recent history should also be taken into account as direct negotiations finally begin.