COMMENTARY
 
Dialogue with Taliban Emerges as an Attractive Option
Weekly Pulse
November 1-6, 2008
At long last a glimmer of hope seems to have arisen on an otherwise dark and dangerous horizon of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. For America and Taliban, principal protagonists of the conflict in Afghanistan and their respective allies, the cost of continuing the conflict may have become unbearable; which explains why, in the past over one month, the international discourse on the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions has suddenly shifted from defeating Taliban through military might to pursuing political dialogue with them.

Each side has its own compulsions to call for peace. Each side has set its own conditions which are unacceptable to the other. But this happens in almost all the peace processes that begin when the costs of conflict become unaffordable for contenders.

For its part, the hard-line Taliban leadership, while officially disowning the recent participation of two former, moderate Taliban representatives in the Mecca round of Afghan peace talks sponsored by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in late September, seems to be willing to initiate political dialogue with the Afghan government. Pakistani Taliban leadership has expressed similar willingness.

However, for this dialogue to resume, the conditions the United States and its allies, the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, have set are unacceptable to Taliban; and the conditions that Taliban have set are unacceptable to the United States and its allies.

In the case of Afghanistan, for instance, the United States and the Afghan government wants Taliban to surrender arms before peace talks begin; and the Taliban want the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as a precondition for their dialogue with the Afghan government. In the case of Pakistan, while the governmental requirement is the same as that of Afghanistan, Taliban have linked their dialogue with a halt in the security operation in the tribal areas.

Apparently, the conditions each side has set for the other are so hard that any possibility of compromise by either side looks unrealistic at this stage. However, the very fact that they have shown willingness to talk after seven years of warfare is significant. The outcome of any peace process over Afghanistan, if and when it formally begins, will depend upon the gravity of compulsions faced by America and Taliban, and their respective allies, amid the continuing violent conflict in southern and eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

It is, therefore, important to understand what has compelled the principal contenders of the conflict and their respective allies to talk about dialogue now, which specific moves each side has made recently due to these compulsions, and what specific conditions they have set at the start for this intended dialogue.

Major Compulsions

For the United States are its allies, the growing Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan is the principal compulsion. Seven years after the US invasion, what was originally considered a quick military success has turned into an increasingly violent counterinsurgency fight, despite the presence of thousands of NATO troops, including 32,000 US troops. 2008 has turned out to be the deadliest year for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. At least 131 US troops have died, surpassing the previous annual high of 111 in 2007. An additional 100 troops from other NATO nations have died this year.

The US National Intelligence Estimate, which will be released in November, is said to have described the situation in Afghanistan as a “downward spiral,” whereby “Taliban’s strength is increasing” and the US and its allies and Afghan government in danger of “losing Afghanistan.” The inability of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to expand its influence in the restive southern and eastern regions of the country has additionally compelled the United States and its NATO allies to realize that the original goal of building a liberal, Western-style democracy in Afghanistan is not attainable.

Recently, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted that trends in Afghan “security, the economy, governance and the drug trade were moving in the “wrong direction.” Afghan leaders have likewise expressed concern over the “rising death toll and devastation” resulting from the war.

As for Pakistan, since the assumption to power of a democratically-elected government in March, there has been no respite in the Taliban-led wave of suicide attacks. Since then, security operation in tribal regions may have also gained momentum, but continuing economic downturn leaves the government with no option but to find an alternative political solution to the security quagmire. With fast depleting currency and eroding reserves, the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. Such a volcanic economic situation amid uncertain politics can hardly sustain a grave security threat posed by growing Taliban militancy.

Taliban and their militant local affiliates, whether in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have equally compelling reasons to opt for peace. Weariness from a seven-year long war in Afghanistan, in which the number of US and NATO troops, including those engaged in direct combat with them, has continued to increase. Gen. David McKiernan, top US commander in Afghanistan has asked for an additional 15,000 troops. Both US presidential contenders Barak Obama and John McCain favour an Iraqi-style US troops’ surge option in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that recent years have seen an upsurge in Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions and suicide attacks in settled areas. However, simultaneously, Afghan and international forces have increased the military attacks against Taliban and other insurgents, which has resulted in the death of a number of Taliban officials. In Pakistan as well, Taliban have never confronted the kind of intense military operation as they have recently.

Peace Indicators

Even though there is no evidence suggesting the United States has played any role in asking the Saudi leadership to sponsor secret peace talks between representatives of the Karzai government, and Taliban and other insurgent groups, the fact that these negations were requested by the Karzai government and Saudi Arabia itself being a principal US ally in the War on Terror means Washington may have played an indirect role in the process.

Afghan representatives at the talks included President Karzai’s brother Qayoum Karzai and his religious affairs advisor Fazl Hadi Shinwari. There was no official representation from Taliban, even though two of their former officials, foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and envoy to Islamabad Abdul Salam Zaeef, known to be moderate Taliban and believed to have been disowned by the Taliban movement, were present. A representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami also reportedly attended the talks.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said, after the news about the said meeting became public, that if there were a willingness among Afghan parties to resolve their problems politically, the country would make more attempts to bring groups together for talks.

A number of high-ranking UN, US, British, NATO and ISAF officials have also recently endorsed the idea of talking to Taliban. Last week at a NATO meeting in Hungary, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while referring to talks with the Taliban, said “a similar rapprochement strategy worked in Iraq. We promoted reconciliation that involved people we were pretty confident had been shooting at us and killing our soldiers. At the end of the day, that's how most wars end…There has to be ultimately -- and I'll underscore ultimately -- reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”

At the same time, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command leading US military operations in Afghanistan, said: “I do think you have to talk to enemies…You've got to know who you're talking to…what we did do in Iraq ultimately was sit down with some of those that were shooting at us. What we tried to do was identify those who might be reconcilable” UN, NATO and ISAF officials agree with the new US stance: NATO’s supreme operational commander, US Gen. John Craddock, has said, “I have said over and over again this is not going to be won by military means.”

Kai Eide, UN special envoy in Afghanistan, has said, "I have always said to those that talk about the military surge... what we need most of all is a political surge, more political energy…We all know that we cannot win it military. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement.”

Former Italian general and ex-commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Mauro Del Vecchio, Carleton-Smith has said, “We need to help Karzai engage in dialogue with those elements of the Taliban who are most open to this.

British envoy and commander in Afghanistan were the first to officially float the idea of talking to Taliban. Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan, has said, “We’re not going to win this war…We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations…If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Brig. Carleton-Smith’s assessment followed the leaking of a memo from a French diplomat who claimed that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, had told him the current strategy was “doomed to fail.”

Besides the international push for negotiating peace with Taliban, there are a number of local indicators for the peace initiative. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, while confirming the holding of talks in Saudi Arabia, has expressed his government’s willingness to talk, saying, “Peace requires that we talk with the armed opposition, including Taliban.”

On Tuesday, some 50 Afghan and Pakistani officials concluded two-day talks of the second round of Pak-Afghan Peace Jirga in Islamabad, by agreeing to establish contacts with the armed opposition in both countries, including Taliban. Former Afghan foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who led the Afghan delegation, said, “We will sit, we will talk to them, they will listen to us and we will come to some sort of solution. Without dialogue we cannot have any sort of conclusion.”

Last week, the two-week long in camera joint session of the Pakistani parliament also concluded with a unanimous vote for a resolution that said militants pose a “grave danger” to the integrity of the state and pursuing dialogue is now “the highest priority.”

The resolution stated, “The most effective solution to the problem of extremism remained a political approach, the resolution. Dialogue must now be the highest priority, as a principal instrument of conflict management and resolution.” On the sensitive issue of using the military to fight the Taliban, the document says the military will be replaced in the tribal areas “as early as possible” by civilian law enforcement agencies.

Key Conditions

It is not that this international and indigenous official quest for having dialogue with the Taliban has not been reciprocated officially by the Taliban leadership. While officially denying their participation in Saudi-sponsored secret talks, Afghan Taliban have expressed their own willingness to talk. So have their Pakistani counterparts. However, simultaneously, they have laid some conditions which should be unacceptable to the US and Afghan authorities in the case of Afghanistan as well as the government of Pakistan in Pakistan’s case. The same goes for the conditions laid down by the US, Afghan authorities and the Pakistani government.

As for the conditions set by Afghan Taliban, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has said that all foreign troops have to leave the country before there can be any talks. On October 15, Pakistani Taliban offered to negotiate peace with the government of Pakistan. The spokesman of Tehrik-e-Taliban, Maulvi Omar, later laid down the conditions, including an immediate halt in the government’s security operation in Swat and Bajaur, two tribal areas where the Taliban have faced intense military pressure in recent months.

“Taliban are ready for talks with the government but we will never lay down arms,” Omar said. The Taliban, he said, sincerely believed that talks are the best way to resolve issues because conflicts created complications. Like their Pakistani counterparts, Afghan Taliban are unwilling to lay down arms until all the foreign troops withdraw from the country.

In both cases, Taliban conditions are unacceptable for the governments and their international partners in the War on Terror. The Afghan Foreign Minister, for instance, has said, for pursuing talks with Taliban, “there are some lines that we cannot and must not cross and that is our constitution. This means acceptance of the post-Taliban constitution's provisions for principles such as women’s rights, free media and democracy were non-negotiable. He has reiterated the Afghan government’s long-held position that any Taliban wanting to enter negotiations would also have to agree to give up their weapons and pursue their ideological agenda through political means.

Top US officials have also linked talks with Taliban’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Afghan government that came into power after their late 2001 demise as well as a unilateral Taliban surrender of arms. Robert Gates has, for instance, said, “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government going forward.” Gen. Petraeus has said something similar: “The key there is making sure that all of that is done in complete coordination with complete support of the Afghan government - and with President Karzai.”

Patrick Moon, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, was recently reported as saying in Kabul that Washington supported talks based on the principles espoused by the Afghan government, including that Taliban must agree to cut all ties to Al-Qaeda and return home in peace. told reporters at another briefing.

Asked if talks could encompass Taliban leader Mulla Umar and Hekmatyar, whom the US considers as Wanted Terrorists, Moon said such men would be dealt with on a “case by case basis.” “We would have a hard time coming to terms with any negotiations that included any of those people,” Christopher Dell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Kabul Dell says.

However, there are indications that the current Afghan leadership may be willing to deal with the leaders of Taliban-led insurgency. On October 3, for instance, President Karzai urged Mulla Umar to return to Afghanistan and participate in next year’s presidential elections for the sake of saving the country from destruction.

As far as the conditions set by the Pakistani government for possible dialogue with Taliban, President Asif Ali Zardari, while responding to Taliban’s offer to hold an unconditional dialogue if the government halted military operations against them, recently said that talks can be held only with militants who laid down their weapons.

Even the parliamentary resolution terming dialogue with Taliban as the “highest priority” for the country, states that “Dialogue will be encouraged with all those elements willing to abide by the constitution of Pakistan and rule of law.”

The Future

Will Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan agree to surrender arms? Will the United States agree to withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan? Will the government of Pakistan negotiate with Taliban who refuse to surrender arms? Will the Taliban in Afghanistan be willing to give legitimacy to the Afghan government and work under the current Afghan Constitution?

The answer to these and so many other questions emanating from the sort of hard conditions that each contending side representing the ongoing warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is a big No at the present stage.

However, as stated at the start, the very fact that the resolve to peacemaking as an alternative to continued war fighting has finally dawned upon principal protagonists in the War on Terror—America and Taliban—and their respective allies, is a factor that should be taken seriously.

This is especially true when we consider the fact that since late 2001, the battle lines between two warring sides were more or less clearly drawn. There may be a bit of exception in Pakistan’s case, as the country did sign a few peace accords with Taliban, the most recent one negotiated between the government of its Frontier province and pro-Taliban militants in Swat Valley in May this year.

One thing that came out of the secret talks in Saudi Arabia was the reported willingness on the part of the Taliban to disassociate them from al-Qaeda. However, since official representatives of the Taliban movement led by Mulla Umar were not present in the talks, such report carries no value.

What if as the momentum for peace, at least in verbal expression of the contending parties, gains further momentum and we have an official proclamation from the hard-core Taliban leadership that they have no ties with al-Qaeda? Such a possibility will solve one of the key problems in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

For as long as Taliban do not separate themselves from al-Qaeda, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia—for that matter, any country or organization engaged in the War on Terror—can negotiate with them. Likewise, neither the government of Pakistan nor that of Afghanistan will b ready to negotiate with an entity that refuses to surrender arms.

Given all of the above, we have to wait and see as to what sort of flexibility Taliban and America and their respective allies are willing to show in their currently uncompromising stances. However, since these positions have been adopted only recently, they have to include strict conditions as identified above.

As the international and domestic discourse on dialogue as the best solution to peace in the strife-torn regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan gains momentum, we may see Pakistani government announcing the end of its military operation in response to a Taliban offer of surrendering arms, we can visualize US and NATO announcing a phased withdrawal of international troops in response to an offer of Afghan Taliban and their militant allies to lay down arms, disassociate them from al-Qaeda, and embrace the current governmental order in Afghanistan.

These are possibilities that we can only talk about now. Only time will tell us how long it takes for them to realize. However, as it happens in the case of all conflicts, the processes to resolve them start from scratch, from a time when peace looks a distant dream. And we must know that there is always a ray of hope in the deadliest of situations. Afghanistan’s south and east, and Pakistan’s tribal zone, are no exception.

Access column at weeklypulse.org