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Fatuous jibber-jabber: (What are we trying to achieve by) Talking with the Taliban…

September 17, 2012

By Tim Foxley


Summary: Western academic contact with “fringe” Taliban: former members of the Taliban or associates, suggest that the Taliban are much more pragmatic, open-minded and open to negotiation than usually thought, holding out the possibility that dialogue might yield a realistic political settlement.  But the claims do not always look convincing and are sometimes highly questionable.  And such revelations may even put genuine, necessarily hidden, dialogue at risk.  Furthermore, the Taliban’s actions in the media and on the battlefield do not reflect or justify such optimism and may even be negatively influenced by these media revelations.  What are we trying to do here?

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has published a report summarising conversations held with two former Taliban ministers and two others associated with, or close to, the Taliban.  The interviews took place in July and at least two encounters (Michael Semple and Anatol Lieven’s interviews) have, I think, been widely reported on since then.   The stated intent was to gauge likely Taliban perspectives on a range of subjects and to ascertain the potential for apolitical settlement with this insurgent group.

Three main issues were addressed.  I include my own very brief summary:

Taliban links with Al Qaeda – The Taliban regret their links with Al Qaeda and would prevent them operating on Afghan soil in future

The potential for a ceasefire -Taliban would be open to negotiating a ceasefire as a way of developing further confidence building measures and to then address the issue of political power distribution

Conflict resolution and the continuing presence of US military bases:

  • No negotiation with Karzai or his administration
  • The constitution must be renegotiated
  • The Taliban would be prepared to accept a long-term US military presence inside the country
  • The Taliban recognise mistakes made in terms of education (and health, etc) and are willing to avoid attacks on teachers

I find the report quite concerning – both the content, but also the process.  Much of the effort in finely balanced negotiations is about avoiding humiliation – of both the Taliban and of the international community (aka the US, aka ISAF).  It makes complete sense that sensitive issues must necessarily be made behind the scenes, in order that difficult issues can be thrashed out and the “unspeakable be spoken”.   I am not sure whether these four interlocuters are helpfully speaking for anyone – they do not seem to speak for the core parts of the Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura) that will be making the decisions and may be making a very difficult set of negotiations much more adversarial – including leading to additional violence on the battlefield – than is needed.

“Fatuous jibber-jabber”

The Taliban issued a swift and vitriolic rejection of the findings of the RUSI paper:

Remarks of spokesman of Islamic Emirate regarding report published by Royal United Services Institut

Tuesday, 24 Syawal 1433

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 11:58

The Royal United Services Institute, a London based so called think-tank published a report yesterday in which it remarked that the Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) are prepared to accept the presence of American forces until 2024 in their talks and other such fatuous jibber-jabber.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly condemns this malicious and strictly propaganda based report of the said think-tank and declares it has no plans of prolonging the American invasion of Afghanistan even for a single day.

Our religion, national interests, national pride and values forbid us from making such illegitimate deals or agreeing to the continuation of invasion or accepting their revolting presence due to fear and our own safety. We believe that this report by the so called think-tank, based on the opinions of a few anonymous faces, is fabricated and consider it the direct work and move of the intelligence circles prepared for its people and for raising the moral of its defeated troops.

In this regard, we ask all media outlets to contact the official spokesmen of Islamic Emirate for verification before publishing such fabrications for propaganda purposes so to affirm their impartiality and negate deceiving the masses.

Well, of course, “he would say that, wouldn’t he?”.  But I struggle to see what value the RUSI revelations are bringing, other than a broad academic interest or a media scoop.  And they seem to me to have the potential to make matters worse.  It can massively undermine whatever position the Taliban feel they need to take, forces them into a defensive corner and basically humiliates them.  What good is this serving?  If the contents here are genuine viewpoints from the Taliban, they are presumably rendered next to useless by splashing them all over the front page of a major Western academic institute – the Taliban have to deny it (and simultaneously brace themselves for the reverberations of doubt, rumour and disquiet through their ranks).  They may need to undertake more violent actions to demonstrate this rejection.  If these are not a genuine set of a Taliban bargaining positions, they will also deny it.  Small wonder we’re not getting any prisoner exchanges underway.  The media and military activities we are seeing from the Taliban at present – highlighted by a very effective complex attack against Camp Bastion over the weekend – do not give a warm feeling that ceasefires, dialogue and reconciliation are getting closer.

If the West is going to talk to the Taliban (and I’m still not convinced we shouldn’t step aside and compel the Taliban and Afghan government to work it out between them), my sense is that there are many messages to the Taliban that should better be “implied” and not stated, on the assumption that the Taliban probably do “get it”.  This might be more effective than bashing them publically over the head with a crudeness and a triumphalism that, at this stage of the game, still does not look particularly justified.  If you humiliate, you jeopardise the process (and this is something that the Taliban also need to understand in regard to the US) and risk increased violence and the collapse of dialogue.  There are a few things that the Taliban probably do “get” and we should try to avoid shouting about it in order to allow them to slowly shift in their own way.

From the “most definitely non-internationalist” Taliban’s perspective, the relationship with Al Qaeda was massively problematic and they can see the unnecessary disaster it brought upon them.  They will quite happily slowly ease themselves away from AQ links as long as people don’t try to force them to sign stuff or stand up in front of a television to denounce them.  The RUSI report notes:

“…getting the Taliban to actively and more persistently renounce Al-Qa’ida  and international Jihadis will require some form of political agreement.”

Why?  Why not just not mention it any more?  The point has been made and the Taliban understand.  And if they don’t understand, they certainly grasp the concept of drone strikes continually harrying them and their children for the next hundred years.  Incidentally, this is another message (“play nicely with your fellow Afghans or a drone will get you in the end”) that can simply discreetly hang, unspoken, in the air, without being banged on about.

Regarding education – they made quite a lot of mistakes on this and many other aspects of basic human governance – health, administration, etc.  But, really, so what?  Whether they know how to address things in future is unknown, as their pronouncements are still pretty weak and non-specific on all matters of governance.  Yes, it will become important and, yes, the international community has a valuable role in gently guiding the Taliban into the language of boring, routine governance, but to be honest, the West should perhaps think a little more about the current situation – seeing the end of suicide bombing and the start of ceasefires.  The education angle seems a little less relevant at present – the Afghan government hasn’t exactly covered itself with sustainable glory…

As regards a ceasefire, the report notes ambiguity and uncertainty about the possible content and processes.  The “fringe” Taliban interviewees suggest that any such cessation of hostilities should be delinked to pre-conditions – laying down arms, denouncing AQ and accepting the constitution.  This is sensible and realistic because it removes the “humiliation” aspect – although the issue of “for whom do these representatives speak?” recurs.

Regarding the constitution – this is another area that could be defused, if you will pardon the pun.  When the constitution was ratified in 2004 I was never clear why it didn’t have a probationary aspect to it – “lets all revise it again in a couple of years and then a couple of years after that”, so to speak.  The constitution is for all Afghans to agree on.  Leave them all alone and let them get on with it.  As long as no one is insisting that one party absolutely agrees or disagrees with it, this is something for slower time.  Don’t close doors or burn bridges.

Political power-sharing is more complex and was either largely unanswered or answered in contradiction in the course of the interviews.  Likely reactions of other ethnic and political powerbases, or the historic fragility of such deals will have to wait for another paper.  The over-arching sense from the report was that:

“…the Taliban would at best serve as minority representatives…[and] that they would have to work with other members of Parliament“

However, there seemed to be quite a few pretty strong demands about what the Taliban would and would not accept, eg:

  • No Karzai
  • No accepting corruption
  • At least one vice-presidency and five cabinet positions
  • Need US assistance to hold the Afghan National Army together

These do not suggest a passive Taliban role in government.

The issue that I found least convincing was the idea, as presented by the former Taliban interviewees, that:

“The Taliban are prepared to accept a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan…” as long as it “…does not impinge on our independence and religion…”

I just think this is plain wrong and a strong argument for suggesting that the interviewees are perhaps not as well placed in Taliban circles as their “handlers” would like to believe.  Why on earth would the Taliban agree to this?  And frankly, if the Taliban are actually in government and, more or less, playing nicely with other Afghans and shunning AQ, where is the main US rationale for being there anyway?  Agreeing in some way to a strong and active US presence would be a recipe for fragmenting the Taliban – probably into even more unpleasant splinters and factional fighting.  If the Taliban reach any form of deal with the US it might have to include a face-saving clause where the US are given time to downsize in a measured way and then leave with a guarantee that they would not be attacked while packing up.  Maybe the leaving could take years.  No humiliation of the US, but a definite sellable achievement to the insurgent fighters who have fought and died for this historic moment.

I noticed that, right at the end, the RUSI team contacted the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, in order “…to confirm the movement’s official approach to education and health.”  Good stuff, I’m sure, but perhaps a shame they didn’t put the whole series of interviews to him and ask him to comment, since they had him on the line.  Or press him a little on Taliban policy regarding suicide bombing.  Or ask him what confidence building measures might be sufficient to generate a ceasefire.

In short, although the analytical motives may be pure, I think this report reads as if the intention was to generate a split between “moderate” political Taliban and the more extreme, military wing.  The latter appear to have the upper hand in-country.  Much of the debate about solutions involving the Taliban rests ultimately on what you want to happen to them – defeat them or negotiate them into some form of governance.  If the views given here were genuine, the act of publicising them will have jeopardised the chances of them aiding dialogue.  If the positions are false (or at least, the information is genuinely given but is an inaccurate reflection of current Taliban thinking) it forces the Taliban into denials and (re)confirms to them that a propaganda campaign is being aimed at them.

Is this a case of the act of academic study actually having an impact on the subject matter under study?

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