After the London conference, it is clear that “talking to the Taliban” will become part of the strategy in Afghanistan. But the conference left a number of important questions about what this means in practice unanswered.

Talking to the Taliban is not a new idea. Even though he expelled a British and Irish diplomat for holding secret talks with Taliban in December 2007, President Karzai has become an advocate for such negotiations over the last two years. In the Spring of 2009, Saudi Arabia hosted tentative negotiations between Karzai’s representatives and former Taliban, with links to the current movement.

But the idea now has a head of steam behind it. In London, Karzai won further financial support for a new peace conference to reach out to “disenchanted brothers” who have fought in the insurgency. The morning after the conference, a front page report in the The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/28/taliban-united-nations-afghanistan claimed that Kai Eide, the UN special representative in the country, had already met regional commanders from the Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, in Dubai on 8 January.

The most important development over the last twelve months is that the United States appears to have embraced this new approach. In his West Point speech in December, President Obama expressed support for efforts to “open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens”. General McChrystal already has control of a of $1.5 billion fund that will be used to persuade former insurgents to give up the cause. On 19 January in an interview with the Financial Times, he also appeared to open the door further than ever to a political reconciliation with senior Taliban leaders. While stating that it was up to the Afghan government to decide who they dealt with, he did concede ‘that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome. And it’s the right outcome.’  

As a counter-insurgency tactic, talking to mid-and low-level Taliban, in order to wean them off violence – by financial, or other means – makes logical sense. It has, in fact, already been thoroughly absorbed into US counter-insurgency doctrine. But what is being touted following the London conference – by some participants more than others – is something more substantive: an overtly political process of “reconciliation”, or “reintegration” bringing in elements of the political leadership of the Taliban.

Nonetheless, fundamental questions remain about the fine print of such a strategy. As Ahmed Rashid has noted in the current issue of The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/, the State Department, the Defence Department, the White House and the CIA all have conflicting views about who exactly to talk to from within the Taliban umbrella, as well as when and how to do so.

Where does one draw the line between the “accidental guerrilla” – the biddable and non-ideological Pashtun insurgent – and the political leadership of the Taliban, with connections to Al Qaeda? Where is the dividing line or the preconditions for such talks? Gordon Brown has repeatedly said that it will only apply to those willing to respect the human rights of others and to come within the fold of the constitution – rather a high bar to set, it would seem. Standing alongside him, President Karzai has been much more flexible, saying that the “red line” of exclusion only applies to those with links to Al Qaeda.

Despite the apparent agreement on strategy in London, there is reason to believe that not all members of the Coalition are signing from the same hymn sheet. In August, Kai Eide, the special representative for the UN secretary-general in Afghanistan openly poured scorn on British suggestions about the need to reach out to “second and third tier Taliban”. “We won’t get where we want by negotiating with local commanders on the ground. That’s an inadequate peace process and that won’t work." The British are still talking about dividing the Taliban at different levels of the insurgency – while fighting continues – whereas others want to reach out to the top level figures as soon as possible.

Following this to its logical conclusion suggests that talking to the Taliban means talking to Mullah Omar, or no one at all. Yet, according to a recent BBC poll, 69% of Afghans think the Taliban the greatest danger to the country’s future. Despite their military strength, their popular support levels remain strikingly low, and have decreased over the last year, suggesting that the Coalition are getting some things right. Even assuming that the Taliban would be prepared to be part of a power-sharing arrangement, how stable would that be given their huge unpopularity among the vast majority of the Afghan population?

Many analysts point to a more flexible message coming from the Taliban leadership, including promises that it would not interfere in the stability of other states. But would an accommodation with the Karzai government really check the supremacist agenda of these figures within their own country? It is certainly not inconceivable that the Taliban would regard it, at best, as a staging post on their way to victory.

Moreover, while the logic of doing deals with the Taliban is tempting, the precedents for success are less promising. For many of those who have lobbied for such negotiations, the example of Northern Ireland is often cited as inspiration. But Northern Ireland was such a different case it is hard to take that analogy seriously anymore.

Other evidence from the recent past is more disheartening about the sustainability of such deals. For example, the British approach in Basra – to come to an accommodation with the Mahdi army, which ceded effective control of the city to Shia militias – was an embarrassing failure, only rectified by the joint intervention of the US and Iraqi Army. In October 2006, the British also entered into a similar arrangement with the Taliban in Musa Qala, only to be forced to retake the town, at significant costs, the following year.

Most pertinent is the example of the Pakistani government’s deal with the Taliban in February 2009, which allowed the implementation of Sharia Law in Swat Valley in return for a truce with Taliban militants in the region. Instead of putting down their weapons, as the government had hoped, the insurgents soon flooded into the neighbouring Buner region and, at one stage in the summer, were sixty miles from Islamabad, before the Pakistani army began its rearguard action in the late summer.

The apparent consensus about the need to “engage” with Taliban obscures important divisions about the aim, as well as the means, of conducting such talks. Some see it at the level of a tactic: to divide and dilute the enemy, while continuing with the counter-insurgency. Others see it at the level of grand strategy: the pre-requisite for “all-inclusive” political settlement and the quickest way out of Afghanistan.

One thing is for sure: talking to the Taliban will not work if it is conducted on the basis of competing agendas and overlapping jurisdictions. For example, it seems that Karzai expelled the British and Irish diplomats in December 2007, not for the act of talking to the Taliban, but because they were doing so without the participation of his own government.

London has provided a platform to parade the new approach in Afghanistan and clearly some progress has been made. But now the Coalition partners need to answer some difficult questions about what talking to the Taliban will mean in practice and how the mistakes of Swat Valley and Musa Qala can be avoided this time.

John Bew is Lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London and Deputy Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence

Tags: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, Hamid Karzai, International politics, Islamism, Taliban, Terrorism, UK politics