It’s Good to Talk?

Afghanistan FlagPresident Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has publicly expressed in the past willingness to negotiate with the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, while guaranteeing his safety. The current planned alterations to American policy in the country could provide a unique opportunity for Afghanistan’s government to sell apparent ‘concessions’ to groups within the Taliban in exchange for their co-operation in reducing levels of violence.

Lessons learned within Iraq are leading American to redeploy focus on population protection rather than operations against hostile insurgents. Thus, within this reorientation of policy there may be elements desired by the Taliban, and especially their supporters. Examples include commitment to reduced troup presence within certain areas (village centres, etc.) or decreased use of arial bombardment – major sources of angst within civilian populations, especially those in which the Taliban currently enjoys support. The principles could even extend to co-operation in government at the local level.

It may therefore be mutually beneficial for the government to publicy declare that it will negotiate with factions of the Taliban prepared to compromise. Although the leadership have insisted that they are not interested in talks as long as foreign troops remain in the country, this is obviously dependent on conditions and that rhetoric has never been challenged to manifest.

Therefore, the offer may create discord within the organisation as more pragmatic elements see means by which they can further practical objectives. By driving a wedge between these groups and the hardliners, the authority and effectiveness of the leadership is diminished. This is analogous to the break up of the Provisional IRA in 1997. Those groups then either disarmed under pressure from politicised elements empowered after engagement in negotiation of the peace process, or declined through lack of support until they no longer pose any threat. The extent of this effect would be unclear, however. Most former Taliban members who were interested in politics, have already engaged in the democratic process. This is evidenced by about 35% of the Afghan Parliament’s Lower House being religious fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, recruitment of insurgents into the Taliban relies heavily on those who have suffered through the actions of foreign troops and resent the current, ineffectual administration. The government could appeal to these individuals by juxtaposing its progressive stance against the obstinacy of the Taliban leadership. The legitimacy of their violence is hugely undermined when peaceful means exists. Any bargains successfully made would demonstrate the effectiveness of peaceful means, and disipate recruitment within that area.

The negotiations will also communicate important information over the composition of the political forces within the organisation, and the motivations of its constituent elements – which are by no means homogenous and known. The centralised authority of the Taliban has decreased more recently, with groups such as the Haqqanis becoming more independent. Some are especially sensitive to public opinion, in order to ensure continual recruitment. This means they are more in touch with the concerns of marginalised groups within Afghanistan (such as those in the Pushtun south), those least likely to turn to the democratic process under the status quo. This information will pressurise the government of Afhganistan to address such concerns, which is clearly not being done at the moment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s government can plausibly deny claims that they are simply puppets of the US. This will increases their reputation amongst citizens and lead to greater respect for the democratic process.

The Taliban, like most insurgency groups, relies on the tacit co-operation of local citizens who support their aims and means. If this were to evaporate, they would experience greater difficulty in resisting US operations against them. Diminshed public support was key to security improvements in Iraq achieved after the ‘Sunni Awakening’ in 2006. It doesn’t even necessarily require concrete progress. By providing the option, the government could create incentives for elements to bow to public pressure and engage in talks, or face loss of support.

The power of the Taliban is not entirely dependent on public support, however. Much of the Taliban’s income is derived from protection of groups growing and exporting opium poppies. Poverty and lack of opportunity for young men makes the Taliban and its derivatives extremely attractive. In addition, much of their finance comes from sources in Saudi Arabia. Thus, delegitimising the violence of the Taliban is no panacaea. However, financial power is more easily dealt with. While restricting finance received from abroad is extremely difficult, tackling smuggling over the border into Pakistan is achievable. Indeed, it is a major component of the co-operation between Pakistan and the US.

Meanwhile, it is debatable whether the Taliban can actually be defeated through exclusively military means given the support currently enjoyed within certain regions of the country and the limiting factor of Afghani security forces and American troops. The result could potentially be the degeneration of the Taliban into a criminal shell, as happens so often with revolutionary groups that lose legitimacy. This would pose considerably less of a threat to public welfare and the broader peace. Meanwhile, the drug trade is a problem which will need to be dealt with in either case.

Even though the Taliban reigned over Afghanistan in an oppressive manner and caused huge harm to its citizens, the support which is enjoys within certain regions of the country cannot be denied. Rather than continue the failed policies of military force with all the harmful diplomatic repercussions and civilian casualties, negotiation with elements of the Taliban may be desirable and mutually beneficial. Although, providing them the opportunity to consolidate their forces and the legitimisation of their organisation could be too high a price to pay.

First published as “Dialogue with the Taliban” in Trinity News (21st of April, 2009).

© The Free Marketeer 2009


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