The Battle for Afghanistan: Negotiations with the Taliban

Policy Paper
May 23, 2011

The debate about “reconciliation” between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government started moving again in 2010. What remains unclear is whether a process of reconciliation has already commenced and meaningful contacts with the insurgents have been established. Substantive talks, however, are clearly not yet underway.

What was really new in these developments in Afghanistan in the last year? For the first time, the Kabul government affirmed that there were contacts with Taliban leaders. At the same time, it played them down as unsubstantial and without results. Without doubt, contacts between the Karzai government and individual insurgents exist, but they have not been systematized and there is still no comprehensive strategy for going forward on talks or even negotiations on reconciliation.

Second, NATO confirmed that it has facilitated these talks technically and by implicitly giving security guarantees for interlocutors. At the same, the new U.S. strategy, including a kill-and-capture program targeting Taliban commanders, does not point toward reconciliation; rather, it has given the upper hand to Taliban hardliners who oppose any talks. This could lead to the ascent of a younger, more radicalized generation of Taliban commanders to replace those killed, who were better known and might have included some inclined toward a political solution.

Third, a High Peace Council with 70 members has been established by the Afghan government as the sole body authorized to pursue reconciliation. Because President Hamid Karzai nominated its members, however, it is seen as a governmental body that will not be able to conduct meaningful negotiations because the Taliban, and many Afghans do not consider it a neutral party.

The fourth new point is that Pakistani authorities have dropped their line of denying all support for and control over the Taliban. For the first time they admitted openly that they are able to ‘deliver’ Taliban leaders for talks. The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, was a statement of intent: talks with the Afghan Taliban are possible, but not without a key Pakistani role. At the same time, new research asserted that while the Taliban accept Pakistani support, many of their commanders nevertheless do not appreciate Pakistani influence on Afghan politics.[i]

These developments have created a growing fear among important social, political, and ethnic groups in Afghanistan that President Hamid Karzai might go for a deal with the Taliban, or certain elements of the movement. This is seen by many Afghans as a Pashtun solution, at the expense of other ethnic minorities and women. It has increased polarization and mistrust and undermines the still-weak Afghan institutions.

This paper analyzes these developments in light of the debate over “reconciliation.” The first section provides an overview of the context and clarifies the language of the current debate in order to avoid misunderstandings and shed light on the “public diplomacy” spin that aims to show progress where there is little. The second and third sections detail and weigh the reported initial contacts between insurgents and the Afghan government. The fourth section describes the motivations of the main actors, discusses the aspects of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan–principles, obstacles, and possible steps and mechanisms–and explores the likelihood of such a process being initiated. The paper concludes with recommendations and suggestions on where to begin and what needs to be changed for the process to have a chance of success. The reconciliation process is only in a very early stage, and many questions remain unanswered. These include many details about how meaningful negotiations can be structured, both at the Afghan level and internationally.

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Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He speaks Pashtu and Dari. This paper reflects the situation as of early 2011.

[i]Matt Waldman, The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents, London School of Economics, Crisis States Research Centre, Discussion Paper No. 18, June 2010.