As the insurgency ramps up, support for “talking to the Taliban” in Afghanistan is increasing. Voices in the United Nations and in Europe favour a new set of negotiations between civil society, political parties and the insurgents, and it is a natural reflex to seek a way out of a seemingly intractable conflict by exploring all available political solutions. But while negotiations are credible and acceptable if they help resolve conflict and save lives, that will not be the case in Afghanistan’s current environment.
The problems begin with identifying those who would be involved in a “new dialogue process”. Afghan civil society is weak at best, and political parties, which have been completely undermined by lack of domestic and international support, are in no position to lobby or feed constructively into national policy formation. And who would represent “the Taliban”? The UN Security Council has formally castigated Mullah Omar and most of his Kandahari leadership, and removing them from the list will not happen quickly. The US, at least, is unlikely to play ball.
The British have suggested talking with mid-level commanders, but it is hard to see how that would address the threats the insurgency poses to Afghan citizens and the state. The likely result would in fact resemble the Musa Qala disaster, a temporary truce UK forces made with the Taliban that strengthened the Taliban’s position by providing them space to regroup and attack again. A “new dialogue process” would offer them this on a national scale. If the British have not learnt much from Musa Qala, neither it seems has the UN.
Nor would such a dialogue address the cross-border aspects of the violence and Pakistan’s formal or informal role in supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Without stemming this, the chances are even greater that an agreement would be a temporary refuelling exercise for the Taliban.
It is far from clear, moreover, that the Afghan government, which cannot survive without substantial international military backing, could implement an accord on its own, provided one is reached at all. And if the outside world has to oversee implementation and enforcement anyway, this hardly meshes with the belief that Afghan patience with international military forces is exhausted – one of the driving ideas behind the talk of a “new dialogue process” – let alone the fact that the Taliban’s primary goal is to oust the international presence entirely.
Most importantly, however, is the basic nature of the enemy some would do a deal with. The Taliban thoroughly reject all the work the international community has done in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. At present, the Taliban top leadership appears to have little interest in negotiations other than on its terms, which include the withdrawal of foreign troops and the re-creation of a Taliban-style “Islamic” state. Would the international community stand by as the Taliban deprived Afghan women and girls of even the basic rights they have acquired since the Taliban’s ousting?
Yet another concern is that negotiations with the Taliban from the internationals’ and Kabul’s current position of weakness would resemble the Pakistani military’s counter-insurgency approach: short-sighted accords that concede territory and political authority to militants. These accords have only undermined the writ of the state and empowered insurgents.
Yes, military force alone is clearly insufficient. And yes, negotiations take time and must begin somewhere. But it is wishful thinking to assume that negotiating with insurgents from a position of weakness would stabilise Afghanistan. Obviously, the international community wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but this is no way to go about it.
Instead of seeking quick fixes, international attention should focus on a comprehensive strategy with broad-based nation-building at its core. Instead of seeking exit strategies, international troops should remain so long as Afghan security forces, civilian and military, are incapable of protecting the lives of citizens and the security of the state. A new robust military commitment – not just in terms of numbers but also appropriate force structures, configurations and mandates – is the way to go.
If we let Afghanistan sink now, the revitalised Taliban will only come to dominate the country, bringing back all the problems that forced the international community to get involved in the first place.
The writer is south Asia project director of the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org