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Talking to the Taliban

March 21, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Communicating with the Taliban remains a major challenge.  A more sensitive and creative messaging environment, supported by confidence building measures might encourage dialogue.  Halting the highly negative and ineffective propaganda war would be a start.  Some thoughts on how the international community might communicate with the Taliban.

Background

DIIS LogoThe Danish Institute for International Studies have produced a paper, Time to reconcile with the Taliban: Military pullout calls for debate on ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan.  The whole paper is worth a read.  I produced a section (see below) on ways in which the international community might consider communicating with the Taliban in ways that might facilitate constructive dialogue:

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Messaging the Taliban (PDF File here)

Photos of Afghan maps 006The Taliban-led insurgency remains virulent and highly destructive.  It holds back Afghan development at all levels, economic, social and political.  Although progress in Afghanistan has undoubtedly been made, much is shallow, fragile and, perhaps worst of all, reversible.  The country faces an uncertain future and the prospect of civil war or some other indefinite period of conflict.  In this section, some thoughts are presented on the prospects for dialogue with the Taliban and make some suggestions for developing a more sensitive and creative messaging environment.

These suggestions are not about getting the Taliban to the table, but about creating a more constructive dialogue for all sides and helping the Taliban to lead themselves towards greater political discourse and away from a sterile and unproductive propaganda and insurgency environment.  The goal in theory and practice should be, through dialogue and discourse, to give the Taliban the opportunity to shape themselves into a non-insurgency group or at least to take steps towards this objective without anyone talking of winning or losing and without anyone feeling resentful and humiliated.

Prospects for dialogue – nothing significant to report?

Regarding the potential for some form of negotiated settlement, it still remains difficult to give a clear assessment of progress and prospects for the future.  Judging the progress of such activity as we have seen (or not seen – it is highly likely that other contacts are taking place far from the public gaze) poses many analytical challenges.  But, even with all this activity in mind – one to one contacts, use of intermediaries, bold statements from regional and international communities, offices supposedly being and Taliban appearances at academic conferences – it is hard to escape the conclusion that little of tangible value has been achieved. In January 2013, the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported:

“There are no significant peace talks under way with the Taliban, the US ambassador to Afghanistan has said, despite years of western and Afghan government efforts to broker a political end to the decade-long war in the country, and some recent signs of progress.

James Cunningham, the US ambassador in Kabul, described reconciliation as ‘a process that hasn’t even really begun’, although he added that one of Washington’s goals was ensuring ‘at least the beginning of a serious process’.”[1]

Whatever is hoped for with “talks” and however desirable is the process, this blunt statement probably most accurately sums up the situation.  Numerous problems are suggested when we consider the current “process”.  There are many different actors representing many different groups and many different agendas – the US, the Afghan government, the High Peace Council, the Pakistani government, insurgent groups (including both Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami), the United Nations and Afghan political and ethnic groups inside and outside of the Afghan government.  Many strands of contact appear to be taking place simultaneously and without coordination.  There is no clarity on what is to be discussed and no clarity on who is speaking for whom.  Many of the terms employed in the discourse look as if they are being misunderstood and misused: e.g. talks, ceasefire, re-integration, reconciliation, power-sharing.

On top of this, there is much uncertainty and even paralysis brought about by the two year transition period as ISAF scales down and prepares to leave.  There is an atmosphere somewhere between “wait and see” and fear and uncertainty about the process for Afghans, insurgents and the international community alike.  As a result of these issues, I suggest that there is still no real agreement on what is to be discussed in what is still very much “talks about talks”.  However, there is a real need for many groups, for different reasons, to be seen to be engaged in meaningful contact and to be making progress.  We should be cautious, therefore, of reading too much progress into the US, Afghan and Pakistani statements and, at the very least, manage our expectations towards a timeframe of years.

Despite many statements to the effect that a political solution is the only real way forward for the country, the international community has, through ISAF, put much of its effort and emphasis on military solutions.  Even in 2012 and 2013, the US media was still full of articles discussing whether the US military is “winning” or “losing” and whether “victory” will ultimately ever be achieved.  But perhaps a better way of envisaging the current insurgency in Afghanistan is to present the desired outcome as one of aiding the reshaping of the Taliban movement away from its current “insurgency” form and into something that is better able to constructively re-engage in Afghan society without any group being humiliated and opening up longer-term possibilities of genuine reconciliation.  There are no obvious and immediate solutions here, but perhaps the communication “environment” – the public range of media – press, radio, TV, internet, social media such as Twitter and Facebook and more formal discussions involving the Taliban (such as thinktank panels at Paris and Japan last year) –  in which understanding, discourse and dialogue between the involved parties might flourish needs some improvement.

Better use of communications

There is a noisy, damaging, but ultimately inconclusive, media battle being conducted between the Taliban and their Afghan and international opponents.  The main effect of this is to “poison the well” for dialogue by entrenching positions and generating suspicion and mistrust.  I suggest that the international community could spend more time considering how the messaging environment might be adjusted in style, tone, expectations and objectives to be more constructive.  The international community should be trying to help to guide the Taliban towards choosing to change into a form more resembling a political organization and looking to challenge and reverse the style of the current messaging regarding the Taliban.  Otherwise, all that is left is a destructive and ineffective “propaganda war”.

International reference points might include Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Sadr – all of which have developed a significant political component.  Every step of the way, the Taliban should be encouraged, coaxed or challenged to talk more about political issues such as employment, reconstruction, development, education, governance, and less about fighting.  The current conditions under which the Taliban might be permitted to re-join the Afghan political community – i.e. that they express support for the current constitution, denounce Al Qaeda, renounce violence, hand in weapons and express support for human rights – sound like surrender terms.  A deal that offers public humiliation might be more likely to push the Taliban away from dialogue.

Practical measures

A neutral organization, such as the United Nations, could be taking the lead in messaging and efforts should be refocused on moving the discourse from issues of conflict to political, social and economic.  This will of course be difficult and complicated – both parties are set in their ways and US/ISAF/military messaging has dominated for some years, as a propaganda campaign can be an important part of counter-insurgency conflict.

There are practical measures that can be taken and messages that can be sent.  Language directed at the Taliban should encourage any positive actions or statements from them, whilst firmly rejecting the negative, giving them regular feedback on all their actions.  Such feedback and commentary would focus, in particular, on their political discourse, in a non-judgmental manner, in order to guide the discourse away from the language of violence.  There would be no “point-scoring” and the language – regardless of the provocations of the security situation – would stay calm but firm.  A website discourse might be helpful – an officially recognized UN/international site that talks to the Taliban, perhaps lightly mirroring the Taliban website’s own style and addressing the issues and concerns that appear there.  If one thing has become very clear, it is that the Taliban take a very strong interest in what is being said about them and often take steps to address particular issues as a result of what is being debated in the international arena.  Civilian casualties is one example of this.

On the ground, ceasefires might be more generally associated with “winning” or “losing”.  But  local cessations of hostilities might usefully give a “breathing space” and combine with local construction or development projects taking place,  with the approval of both sides and a joint monitoring team (i.e. a team that includes Taliban representatives) to oversee both ceasefire and work.  Neutral, small scale projects for the benefit of the local community that gives no other military or security gain, should be selected.  The still largely incomplete and ineffective Kajaki Dam project, intended to provide electricity to around 1.7 million people in southern Afghanistan, might be tested in this way as a means of generating local Taliban engagement – such as a joint monitoring team including Taliban representatives to undertake a ceasefire and monitor any work.[2]  Involving the Taliban in “joint” projects with a group or groups they trust might give the Taliban a more tangible stake in society.  This might be a difficult step for the Afghan government and the international community – it would be partial acknowledgement that the Taliban dominate in parts of the country.  But allowing them to take some credit for such activities might seem counter-productive or counter-intuitive (certainly if you favor “defeating” the Taliban), but once they have taken a small step to support development of the country (this is how it should be presented) it becomes harder for them to reverse direction.  They become accountable and responsible for their work.

Options for engagement

In brief, other engagements for the Afghan government and/or the international community to consider might include:

  • For the Afghan government to allow some form of Taliban monitoring of their prisoners in the notorious Pol-e Charkhi in Kabul, looking at health, human rights, treatment issues.  Time and again this emerges as a key issue for Taliban and therefore one that could yield results, even small initiatives that at least showed recognition of this Taliban concern.[3]
  • For the International Community to more formally admit to mistakes made in their approach to Afghanistan before and after 2001 and encourage the Taliban to do likewise.
  • For the International Community to stop the covert IO/media/propaganda attacks against the Taliban (for example placing rumors of Omar’s death in the media or setting up false Twitter accounts).  The Taliban are acutely sensitive about what they see as Western media “trickeries”.[4]
  • For the Afghan government and International Community to engage with the Taliban and seek Taliban thoughts on political, economic and religious matters – to get them talking – i.e. “how would you do this?”
  • For the Afghan government and International Community to be more careful when placing blame.  There are likely many security incidents, particularly explosive detonations, which may have causes other than the Taliban, such as mines from the Soviet period.  However, a default setting in any incident, particularly from local government authorities is to blame the Taliban before any investigation has taken place.  If the cause is unclear, this could at least be explained.  As a possible example, I am not convinced that the “school poisonings” stories from last year were genuinely insurgent attacks – and neither, apparently, was ISAF or the Afghan government.[5]  But it is still an easy accusation to be thrown at the Taliban which infuriates them.  As a confidence building concept, it perhaps makes sense for the Taliban to generally be given credit where it is due and demonstrably exonerated if at all possible.

There are many difficulties with messaging approaches that reach out to the Taliban.  There are many stakeholders to be convinced – in particular non-Pashtun ethnic and political groups of Afghanistan but also the Afghan government, the international community, the US, ISAF, neighboring countries.  The insurgents themselves will be highly suspicious.  For many, it will be seen as appeasement of Taliban.  For the Taliban themselves, many already believe they are winning and that they need only to await the withdrawal of ISAF in 2014.  Such an approach, it is true, would require major compromises.  Many groups would question whether issues such as human rights, women’s rights, the Afghan constitution, the addressing of war crimes, are all being given up.

But “jaw, jaw” is surely better than “war, war”, and there is an element of “win/win” here.  If the Taliban do fail to engage credibly in discourse beyond “jihad” and violence, it exposes their ideas and pronouncements to accusations that they are not sincerely engaged in considering the wishes of the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have absorbed many lessons since 2001 – they have learnt a lot about the international arena and the Afghan population.  They have probably had to become much more like their Afghan and international opponents than they think, in terms of the ways in which they think, act, prioritize and express themselves.  They have had to actively consider the relationship between civilian casualties and popular sentiment and address the issue.  They have had to learn to explain themselves in numerous ways that they would not have thought about 10-15 years ago.  This is how far they have come and careful use of non-aggressive messaging can take them even further.  This is the real opportunity for the messaging environment.


[1] Graham-Harrison, E., ‘Taliban peace talks are not under way, says US ambassador to Afghanistan’, The Guardian, 17 Jan. 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/17/taliban-afghanistan-us-peace-talks?CMP=twt_gu.

[3] ‘Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding the inhumane treatment of oppressed prisoners in Pul-e-Charkh’, Taliban website, 14 Mar. 2012, http://www.shahamat-english.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15753:statement-of-islamic-emirate-regarding-the-inhumane-treatment-of-oppressed-prisoners-in-pul-e-charkh&catid=4:statements&Itemid=4.

[4]“Some Dailies which are the mouthpiece of the Western Colonialism and other media outlets that toe their line, once again, circulated a baseless rumors, following their other futile propaganda campaigns and tried to create suspicions about the policy of the Islamic Emirate”, Taliban website, 18 May 2011, http://www.shahamat-english.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7547:remarks-of-the-spokesman-of-the-islamic-emirate-regarding-the-fresh-rumors-of-the-western-media&catid=4:statements&Itemid=4.

[5] Gutcher, L., ‘Fear in the classrooms: is the Taliban poisoning Afghanistan’s schoolgirls? Hundreds in hospital – but are terror attacks on schools to blame, or mass hysteria?’, The Independent, 1 June 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/fear-in-the-classrooms-is-the-taliban-poisoning-afghanistans-schoolgirls-7808463.html.

 

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