Talking to the Taliban

Talking to the Taliban


The United States and its allies have adopted a bold new strategy for Afghanistan. Although flawed by internal contradictions, it represents a clear break with the past. What is the new strategy? And will it work?

Outlined at the London conference of 28 January, the following are its key elements:

• There is now a declared readiness on the part of President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers to talk peace with the Taliban — if on certain conditions.

• Low-level insurgents are to be offered jobs, land and protection to encourage them to switch sides from the Taliban to the Government. A large fund of up to $1billion is being created for this purpose.

• Afghan soldiers and police are to be built up to a total force of 300,000 men “before October 2011.” Responsibility for security will then be transferred to them — province by province — beginning in late 2010 or early 2011.

• At the same time, President Hamid Karzai plans to call a Loya Jirga — or large tribal council — in the coming weeks to talk ‘peace’. Open to tribal elders from across the country, it is expected to include Pashtun tribes which had been excluded from the 2001 Bonn peace conference and from the subsequent Kabul government because of their links with the Taliban.

Thus, the first element of the new strategy is a readiness to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. On a recent visit to Islamabad, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates described the Taliban as part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric.” General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told the Financial Times on 25 January: “As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting.”

In opening the London conference, Afghan’s President Hamid Karzai himself declared: “We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of Al-Qaida or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan Constitution.”

Other elements of the new strategy are less conciliatory. General McChrystal seems to believe that before talks can be held, the Taliban must be weakened by a military surge. The international coalition will number over 140,000 men this year.

But it may not be easy to draw the Taliban into talks while at the same time seeking to defeat them militarily. This may be a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the new strategy.

Another possible difficulty is that Karzai seems ready to talk to Mullah Omar, the former Taliban ruler. His finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, has even spoken of offering Taliban leaders top jobs at both the district and central government level. Would the West be ready to go that far? It has indicted Mullah Omar as a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks and has put a $25 million bounty on his head. It would not be easy for Western governments to agree to reconciliation with him and his close colleagues.

What are the motives driving the new strategy? First of all, there is great war-weariness in Western societies, and a reluctance to take more casualties. Last year saw a 70 per cent surge in coalition losses. There is also a widespread sense that the Afghan war is unwinnable and that an honorable exit must be found. Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is facing general elections in May, would dearly love to be able to announce that there was an end in sight to the unpopular war. President Karzai, in turn, is seeking fresh legitimacy after last year’s fraudulent election.

Kai Eide, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, who met Taliban representatives in Dubai in early January, believes that political reconciliation with the Taliban must take place at the same time as their reintegration into Afghan politics.

Will the Taliban agree to talk? They may think they are winning. They have said that they will not talk peace until the ‘infidel foreign forces’ withdraw.

The London Conference does not appear to have given much thought to Afghanistan’s neighbors. Iran is unlikely to play a positive role so long as it faces harsh Western sanctions. Pakistan could play a role in the reintegration of the Taliban, but it would expect, in return, greater U.S. backing in its competition with India.

President Karzai would like King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia to play a role in the peace process, but the Saudis are cautious. The Kingdom’s Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, said that “Saudi Arabia has no connection with the Taliban.” His country would only talk to the Taliban, he added, if they severed ties with Al-Qaida.

The new Afghan strategy marks a fresh start but great obstacles to a peaceful settlement — and no doubt a lot more fighting — still lie ahead.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright © 2010 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global