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Ten Reasons to Talk to Taliban Hardliners

New America Media, News analysis, Craig Naumann, Ph.D. Posted: Mar 27, 2009

Editors Note: Engaging with the Taliban could be part of the Afghanistan policy of the Obama Administration. But who in the Taliban should the United States be talking to? NAM Contributing Writer Craig Naumann, Ph.D., thinks Washington should talk not just to the moderates, but also to the hardliners.

As fighting in the Afghan South is expected to intensify with the arrival of spring the Obama Administration is finalizing its strategic policies for the region. This heightened sense of urgency to stem the resurgent Taliban is reflected in a flurry of international conferences on the Afghan crisis: the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations special conference on reconstruction and fighting terrorism in Afghanistan held in Moscow on March 27 (with the United States as an observer), followed by a U.N. special conference in the Netherlands. At center stage during these talks is how to frame and coordinate military strategy and humanitarian efforts. Options being reviewed are a military surge emulating Iraqs example, and a complementary humanitarian surge for Afghanistan.

Over the past years, the United States and its allies unsuccessfully tried to pacify Afghanistans volatile south via a mix of military muscle and aid efforts. As an added element in the pacification strategy another seemingly novel concept is the idea to negotiate with the so-called moderate elements among the Taliban. This avenue is usually framed as a tag-along option but never seriously discussed as a stand-alone strategy.

Here are 10 good reasons why negotiations with all the Taliban, and especially its hardliners, should be at the very center of a development strategy for Afghanistan.

1. The West should show an interest in the Afghan government engaging in peace talks with the insurgents. That senior Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar and others have purportedly said that they are not interested in a deal with the Afghan government should not be taken at face value. In the Oriental bazaar, when haggling over a precious item, one does not reveal ones real intentions until the very end of the bargaining process. Likewise political and ideological rhetoric does not automatically translate into actual politics or policy. Unless a serious offer is extended, respecting the Taliban as an equal partner to talks, with all participating sides being ready to make concessions, we wont know if they will be receptive, or which factions are amenable to negotiating.

2. It makes no sense to argue that all the reconcilable elements of the Taliban have already defected and there are only intransigent hardliners left. Any individual, faction or movement might come to the table if offered a fair deal. An amnesty is simply not good enough for the senior ranks of the Taliban. What might have sounded attractive in 2001/2 has lost much of its luster, given the military stalemate. Unless things on the military front dramatically improve for the Karzai government and its Western allies, power sharing must be part of the discussion. The mid-term goal should be to allow the factions of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgency movements to transform themselves into civilian political parties who fight for their respective agenda through the democratic process by way of the ballot.

3. According to Pashtun customary law, peace negotiations require that both parties agree on the agenda, the venue and the body of referees. Dictating the agenda or offering amnesty would immediately backfire. One should not rule out the strong possibility that the Taliban considers the United States and any other given foreign power as not entitled to having a say in peace talks. The United States might want to seriously consider not insisting on directly participating in the negotiations. Any notion of the U.S. administration engaging in direct talks with the Taliban leadership, if accepted by the Taliban, could only be a precursor to the much more detailed peace making process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

4. Through the Bush administrations very unfortunate gaffes in diplomacy, the Taliban leadership was prevented from ridding itself of Osama bin Laden by handing him over to foreign powers. In Pashtun customs, any guest asking for protection has to be defended as if he were direct kin, regardless of any evil deeds he might have committed. Practically all Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns. Hence, the U.S. ultimatum to hand over bin Laden was perceived as a slap in the face. To tribal Pashtuns, whose worldview is governed by an ancient code of honor, death is preferred over appearing as dishonorable or losing ones reputation. The U.S. ultimatum meant war from the outset, with virtually no room for negotiation.

5. While there are certain theological parallels between Al Qaedas brand of Islamism and the Talibans ideology, the Taliban are essentially nationalists, concerned only about Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is not interested in Afghanistan per se but rather pursuing a global faith-based revolution. In order to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the latter have to be offered a way out from their maze of violence. Before 9/11 there were very tangible tensions between the camps of the Taliban and bin Ladens Al Qaeda fighters. If not for the outside pressure with the unintended effect of pushing them together against a common enemy, bin Laden quite possibly would have been handed over to a third party on a platter by Mullah Omar.

6. The Talibans most recent ideological proximity to Al Qaeda is a direct effect of them fighting the same enemy, the United States. All tribal forces including the Taliban have to be brought behind a common goal: that of Afghanistans reconstruction. Only then might it become possible to oust Al Qaeda from the region. But the United States, by teaming up with tribal militias to defeat the Taliban insurrection, will almost certainly spark equal resistance from others among the fiercely egalitarian Pashtun tribes.

7. Wedged between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistans Punjab and Sindh provinces, the so-called terrorist safe havens stretch all the way from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to Baluchistan. A Marshall Plan should not only involve Afghanistan (with a focus on the insurgency-ridden south). Ideally, it would be a comprehensive package deal for the entire region from Kashmir in the East (bordering India and China) to Baluchistan and Sistan in the West (bordering Iran[CN1] ). Afghanistan could again become a regional hub for commerce, tourism, even the international service industry. But reinventing the Silk Route in a 21st century setting requires all the nations of the Great Game to creatively transcend the nation state zero-sum mindset so typical of the 19th and 20th centuries. All these border areas are already illicit free trade zones fuelled by the drug economy which over the past years has become inextricably linked to the insurgency. So lets transform them into licit economy free trade zones through a sustained international effort based on large-scale education and employment initiatives transcending national borders. This would have nothing to do with bribery but represent the respect and repairs of the former anti-Soviet alliance (including the US, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.A.E., Pakistan, PR China and possibly even the post-soviet satellite states and, though less likely under the current regime, Russia itself) to three generations of Afghans suffering through a decade-long proxy war during cold war times or were caught up in the unresolved effects of its aftermath which are lasting until today.

8. The Taliban leadership, which consists of hardliners, seems inclined to stall the dynamics of negotiation in part because they think they are making military gains. This is why it is of the utmost importance to stabilize the governments territory and positions and contain the areas currently controlled by the Taliban As long as this perception prevails, those wanting to negotiate wont hold sway. If the military strength shifts in favor of the government, then those among the Taliban in favor of peace talks, will gain respectability and stand a better chance of being heeded inside the ranks of the movement.

9. Building a unified Afghan nation will only succeed if all the forces that took part in the war of national liberation are invited to participate in the nation building project. The 2001 conference in Bonn-Petersberg, after the ouster of the Taliban regime, yielded an unsustainable result. It excluded powerful senior leaders such as Haqqani and Hekmatyar and Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar from the nation building effort, arguably leaving them no better option than continued fighting.

10. The longer the fighting carries on, the more tribal Pashtuns will flock to the cause of fighting off what has unfortunately come to be perceived by the mostly illiterate locals as a hostile occupation. The United States should show an interest in the Afghan government engaging in peace talks with all of the insurgents. Not at any price, but a price tag there will be. What will hurt the West more than writing paychecks for a humanitarian surge will be the concessions to (ultra-)conservatives provided the local population is okay with these concessions. But a humanitarian surge will always be far less expensive than protracted Western military presence in large numbers.

Timing of negotiations is critical. Negotiations should be carried out while the government is in a position of strength. The Talibans attempts to gain additional terrain on the battlefield and hold territory will need to be held in check in the meanwhile. To strengthen the governments position, should there be a possibility excluding causing collateral damage, they should be pushed back and be pressured to come to the negotiation table. Real negotiations could then start under the new president. It would then be up to the Afghan people to decide the future course of their country.

Either way, the U.S. government should take a back seat and let the Afghan government do what is has been trying to do for a number of years and has been unduly criticized for: namely, to bring peace to the insurgency-ridden areas by reaching out to its adversary.

Naumann is an international development consultant and independent researcher who worked in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2007 in various education-related assignments for the United Nations and USAID. He is the author of "Books, Bullets, and Burqas - Analysis of a Crisis - Educational Development, Society, and the State in Afghanistan" (April 2009, Xlibris).

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