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Negotiating with the Taliban might be the only way the Afghanistan war ends

REUTERS/Naqibullah Faiq
A Taliban suicide bomber and six gunmen attacked the Afghan parliament on June 22 as lawmakers met to consider a new defense minister.

More than 2,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded nearly 14 years ago in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Taxpayers have spent $1 trillion-plus on the conflict and efforts to rebuild the country.

So why is everyone talking about negotiating a settlement with the Taliban? After all, any deal would almost certainly mean bringing some Taliban members back into the government.

Because aside from a Taliban victory, a deal with the Taliban really is the only way this conflict ends. And an unusual alignment of new leadership in Afghanistan and a rethinking of priorities elsewhere suggests that if there is any chance to end decades of war, this might be it.

Public focus in the U.S. has largely moved on, and the U.S. role in Afghanistan has diminished. But it remains hugely important. Washington is spending billions annually to prop up the Afghan government. While nearly 10,000 U.S. troops still are in Afghanistan, they are no longer on the front lines (only four have died in Afghanistan so far this year). The Obama administration’s current plan is to pull the remaining troops out by the end of next year.

The idea of negotiating with the Taliban actually has been around for years.

The first formal meeting between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives took place late in 2010, and a few months later, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a set of preconditions: the Taliban would have to disarm, accept the Afghan constitution and cut ties with Al Qaeda.

That didn’t really go anywhere. Neither did the effort to defeat the Taliban. When the U.S. military force peaked at around 100,000, it did manage to push the Taliban back. But that’s a far cry from vanquishing a guerrilla movement which, like it or not, has deep roots in the provinces. Ask the Russians about it.

Here you can read a detailed recap of previous negotiations, and an argument for talking to the Taliban now. One of the authors, James Dobbins, was until recently the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An Afghan government delegation met with Taliban representatives earlier this month, after a series of lower-level contacts.

What’s different this time?

–Pakistan is helping rather than hindering.

–China has gotten involved.

–Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has made negotiations a priority.

–And, particularly to the Afghan government, the alternatives look worse.

As the U.S. military pulls back, Afghans are doing more of the fighting. More than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed this year, and nearly 8,000 wounded. Still, the Taliban has been regaining territory. For now, there is no danger it will overrun the country, but it’s possible to imagine that it will control some provinces.

The Afghan military and police will need American help for a long time to come. Since Americans seem weary of such entanglements, it’s also possible to imagine that the flood of dollars will turn into a trickle at some point, or the tap will run dry.

In that case, the best scenario for the Afghan government is more war — between two more or less evenly matched foes. The worst is that the Taliban triumphs.  So, if you’re Ghani, maybe it’s a good idea to strike a deal while the Americans have your back.

Plus, the Islamic State, already ensconced in Iraq and Syria, is seeking to expand, and it has gotten a toehold in Afghanistan, mainly by peeling off Taliban fighters.  

There are reports of tensions between the two movements. Again, if you’re Ghani, it makes sense to try to entice less radical elements of the Taliban into an accommodation with the government.

Pakistan has in recent months gotten more serious about fighting the Taliban on its side of the border. Its government seems to recognize that it could be bad for Pakistan if the movement got too strong in Afghanistan. Aside from a spillover of even more violence, it could push Ghani into the arms of Pakistan’s archrival — India.

So instead of getting in the way, Pakistan hosted the meeting this month between the Taliban representatives and Ghani’s government.

As for China, it has sizable investments in Afghanistan, and it’s anxious about radicalization of Muslims in its far northwest (if you haven’t looked closely at a map, it might surprise you that China and Afghanistan share a short border). Plus, it has influence in Pakistan.

This being Afghanistan, all might well be for naught. There are signs of friction in the Taliban between those who want to talk, and those who don’t. And the movement might conclude that there is more to gain from fighting.

But if there is any chance at all, Dobbins advises the U.S. government to be flexible on the military withdrawal, be prepared to stay involved, and swallow hard on Clinton’s preconditions. There is no chance that fighting will stop soon. And there is little prospect for the Taliban to buy in without bringing the constitution and other elements of Afghanistan’s governing structure closer to its worldview.

Human rights, particularly religious freedom and the status of women, definitely would be at risk.

If that’s the price of peace, is it worth it?

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/22/2015 - 12:31 pm.

    So how did it work in Vietnam?

    The US fighting an enemy that we couldn’t distinguish from our “friends” with no clear way of transforming the country into a mini-me of suburbia as we thought would be the case. Same thing now, what we want doesn’t much correspond to what they want (or at least what a governing majority wants). We have weaker ties to the government we promulgated than the government has to the Taliban. They understand each other–we don’t.

    The difference is that there are no POW’s that serve to whip the conclusion of the negotiations with respect to the US.

    So what we want really doesn’t matter that much, because in essence, we have done little to transform the nature of their lives.

    And their new masters-lite, the Chinese, don’t really give a damn about much more than locking up the rights to as much natural resources and employment for their Chinese industries. No understanding required, no change required. They’ll live parallel lives, only intersecting at the dollars (yes, dollars–the world’s reserve currency) that will be exchanged in their commercial transactions and protection agreements.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 07/22/2015 - 05:11 pm.

      Hopefully you are wrong however I fear that you are correct. The idea of all those women and girls being returned to the dark ages is very sad. (~15 million of them) It was worth the investment to give them the chance, however there is little we can do to transform them if they do not want to be transformed.

      By the way, one big difference. North Vietnam had the Chinese government openly supporting them. The Taliban don’t seem to have any country that will openly support them. There may be some hope that it will stay better than when we first entered the country.

  2. Submitted by Andrew Jenks on 07/22/2015 - 09:26 pm.

    Good commentary

    I am sure the old Soviets would agree with you after their Afghan disaster trying to “win by massive force”

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/22/2015 - 09:40 pm.

    Supporters of Taliban?

    Pakistan (7.5 billion dollars of US aid)

    Saudi Arabia (with US petro-dollars).

    International funders of development projects that pay protection money to Taliban (US included).

    International drug cartels (and US drug addicts).

    I guess the biggest supporter would be the US !!

    We’re number one!!

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 07/23/2015 - 06:31 am.

      And The Answer Is

      Is your answer then to bottle up the USA and avoid trading and interacting globally?

      I suppose the same logic could be used to explain that consumers are supporters of credit card fraud. When in reality there is a small group of people who are siphoning off a small percentage from worthwhile transactions for their own personal benefit and nefarious actions. Typically we work to stop the criminals, not stop the beneficial activities.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/23/2015 - 07:46 am.

        Well, I answered your question as to who supports the Taliban with a few ideas. What to do about it is a different matter. We have never had effective leverage against any of those entities.


        Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”

        Read more:

        (end quote)

        Quasi-“narco-states” have existed south of the US border for decade and have been very hard to fight effectively. Virtually unlimited flows of money are hard to fight.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 07/23/2015 - 08:30 am.

          Too Bad

          It is too bad that some humans love their addictive substances.

          We just need a way to convince drug producers to support democracy, equity and human rights. No problem… 🙂

          Until then I guess we just resist and fight for “good” where we can.

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