War Stories

Can We Really Negotiate With the Taliban?

We must reach out to willing factions. But first they must believe we can win.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Hamid Karzai 

What’s up with Hamid Karzai? The Afghan president told reporters on Sunday that he would welcome peace negotiations with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former leader of the country’s Taliban regime, and would guarantee his security if he came back to Kabul for the talks.

Several top U.S. officials—Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and even President-elect Barack Obama—have recently expressed interest in reaching out to “reconcilable” Taliban fighters, but I somehow doubt they had Mullah Omar in mind.

Omar, recall, was the one-eyed “commander of the faithful” during the Taliban’s totalitarian reign. He harbored al-Qaida and allied himself closely with Osama Bin Laden. He has probably been hiding out in western Pakistan since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, but he’s still considered a major threat; the Bush administration put a $10 million bounty on his head, thus far to no avail.

In short, if there are any reconcilable Taliban, Mullah Omar is not among them. And if he does set foot in Afghanistan again, Karzai should pledge to shoot him on sight, not give him safe passage; that’s certainly what Omar would do to Karzai, should the tables ever turn.

It is doubtful that Karzai was serious about the offer. Here’s what he said about Omar in full: “If I hear from him that he is prepared to come to Afghanistan or negotiate for peace, I, as president of Afghanistan, will go to any length providing protection. If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: remove me, or leave if they disagree.”

Two inferences can be made from this remark. First, Karzai is not really proposing anything; Omar has no interest in negotiating for peace, and Karzai certainly knows this. Second, he made the remarks in Kabul after returning from a meeting in London, so he may have meant them for domestic consumption—as a demonstration that he’s not a puppet of the West.

Still, Karzai’s remark does raise a substantive issue: Are there reconcilable Taliban? It’s fatuous to consider talks with Mullah Omar, but who might be a useful negotiating partner, under what circumstances, and to what end?

The idea of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan first gained currency last month, when Gen. Petraeus said, during a talk at the conservative Heritage Foundation, that some sort of deal with the Taliban would ultimately have to be made. “This is how you end these kinds of conflicts,” he said. There is “no alternative to reconciliation.”

Petraeus has had experience at talking with provisional enemies. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he pacified Mosul in the early days of the occupation in Iraq by paying off tribal leaders, assimilating them into positions of authority, and subsidizing development projects. Later, as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, he crafted the “Anbar Awakening,” in which Sunni insurgents in Anbar province (and gradually elsewhere) formed alliances with U.S. forces to defeat the common enemy of al-Qaida in Iraq.

So, when Petraeus took up his new post as head of U.S. Central Command (which encompasses all South Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan), his first instinct was to explore how to co-opt tribal leaders and less extremist Taliban fighters.

David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency specialist who advises the U.S. and British governments, said on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN talk show Sunday that 90 percent of those who call themselves Taliban “are actually tribal fighters who are motivated by local interests, or by desire for monetary gain, or by a desire for revenge because of something that we’ve done, rather than because they support the political agenda of the Taliban.” In other words, they are susceptible to co-optation.

But among the many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, two are particularly worth noting in this context. Petraeus ran his co-optation campaign in Mosul just after U.S. forces had overtaken Baghdad and forced Saddam Hussein to flee. The alliance in Anbar was struck at the initiative of the local Sunnis, who saw AQI as a bigger threat than the American occupiers.

In other words, in Mosul, Petraeus was dealing from a position of strength; in Anbar, he had something the insurgents desperately wanted.

So, if this sort of approach has a chance of succeeding in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his NATO counterparts have to muster the same preconditions. They have to deal from a position of strength, meaning they have to win some key battles to show the Taliban that cooperating with NATO would mean joining the winning side. And they have to give the Afghan people—the tribes that are siding with the Taliban opportunistically—something they want, which in this case means a basic sense of security.

The Taliban have gained a foothold in Afghanistan because the central government is dysfunctional. For instance, the police are thoroughly corrupt, so the Taliban come in and impose their own brand of order and justice (which most people prefer to no order or justice at all). The essence of counterinsurgency is to protect the population—to dry up the support for the insurgents, lure the population to the government’s side. This is more vital than merely chasing insurgents all over the countryside.

When Petraeus, Gates, Kilcullen, and others—including, I hope, President-elect Obama—advocate “negotiating with the Taliban,” what they really mean is negotiating with those who currently support or call themselves Taliban for opportunistic reasons.

Karzai’s notion of holding peace talks with Mullah Omar, or any other hard-core Taliban, is senseless. But talking with softer-core factions would be equally fruitless unless they were first persuaded that the United States and NATO can win—i.e., that they (assisting the Afghan National Army) can protect the population slice by slice, village by village. Otherwise, the “reconcilable” Taliban will also view an offer to negotiate as a sign of weakness and a prelude to the hard-core fighters’ victory.