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Taliban talks – “not underway”

January 22, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Talks of any use with the Taliban are probably still not underway.

Just a brief reminder that whatever is hoped for with “talks” and however desirable is the process, the blunt statement here probably most accurately sums up the situation – certainly from the US perspective.

The Guardian, 17 Jan:  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”.

Of course, it is highly likely that the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) have contact with a range of other actors – Afghan government and political opposition (e.g. former Northern Alliance), neighbouring countries – particularly Pakistan, other international nations (Saudi/Qatar), international groups (UN).

Talks does not necessarily mean “talks”.  Setting up offices, having contact capability and hosting informal discussions (Paris and Japan last year), although useful pre-cursors, are merely that – pre-cursors.  With the process of international military withdrawal now fully underway, I struggle to see why the Taliban  would be interested in making deals and concessions now, when the security situation – in their judgement – is likely to shift in their favour over the next few months (and, of course years).

We are still in a “wait and see” mode.  There has been no significant strategic shift in any direction that might change the calculations of either the Taliban or the Afghan government and force them into each others arms.  The rights or wrongs (and success and failures) aside, if there was one thing that was pressuring the Taliban, it was the intensive targeted killings programmes.  If this hasn’t actually finished, it has certainly greatly reduced.  This takes the pressure of the Taliban and allows them breathing space.  It is becoming harder to track the levels of Taliban control in the provinces – information is just not so readily avaliable anymore.  The Afghan govenment have a big army which they would need to see fail first before they engage in serious dialogue (ie dialogue beyond the “renounce AQ, renounce violence, support  human rights, support wome’s rights, support the constitution” mantra) – but then it would be dialogue from a position of defeat.

But who has the strategic longevity here?  Taliban or Afghan government?  I still incline towards the Taliban – the government seems to struggle with basics – corruption, efficiency, coherency, control… This will only get harder for them as the internationals scale back.  For the next few years, the government looks more likely to spin out of control than their opponents.

And it is therefore more likely that key players, the US in this case, will re-define the “success” goalposts, as is suggested here by Mr Cunningham:

“he added that one of Washington’s goals was ensuring ‘at least the beginning of a serious process’”

The strategic narrative in 2014 would thus read: “we got rid of Bin Laden, gave Afghanistan a government and an army, set the stage for peace talks between the factions – they are now ready to stand alone”

When it all starts to fall apart, in or around 2018, there will be sufficient time, memory and Presidential distance for the US to be able to say: ““we got rid of Bin Laden, gave Afghanistan a government and an army, set the stage for peace talks between the factions – what more do they want?  Its not our problem anymore”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Moe permalink
    January 27, 2013 9:36 am

    Hello Sir. I wish to enquire of your expertise how the Taliban function if Western casualty claims are to be believed. Wikipedia states that at least 33,000 Taliban members have been killed by coalition forces (though in my view it is heavily influenced by Western bias). How is this possible? The Taliban are estimated to be around 20,000 minimum estimates. I personally view these casualty figures with great suspicion and believe if the numbers are at least that high there must be considerable civilians and non members among them. By non members I mean non Taliban members/ Pashtun nationalists or people who are fighting the Northern Alliance government and its Western backers for a variety of reasons. This fact, there is no monolithic ‘Taliban’ and the fact that those ‘evil’ enemies being killed might and do include teenage farm boys who pop shots in the night after the day’s harvest against those they (rightly or wrongly) deem invaders.

    So called ‘surgical’ coalition use of air power and the oft repeated mantra of “we don’t do body counts” seems to ring hallow with the targeted assassination program which in many instances has hit the wrong house or killed innocent people and those deemed ‘taliban’ by enemies. Coupled with ariel bombardment (based on war reporting and documentaries like Restrepo) that cannot be verified to have killed enemies or innocents there seems to me to be quite a loss of non member blood. Not to even consider the experience that occupation and imprisonment (and torture) in places like Bagram can have. And more than ample reason to declare the war a war of Pashtun nationalists using Islamic imagery with an Islamist core than an Islamist against democratic insurgency. I don’t deny the Kabul government is democratic but its nepotism, sectarianism, and corruption hardly make it a democracy worth fighting for.

    Note I am not trying to belittle achievements by the Afghan Government (however limited) in women’s rights etc. Nor am I a revisionist to forget the Taliban’s more odious stances. But I believe the war in Afghanistan was the West fighting in a civil war it had not business in and the West has an odious habit of putting captions of liberal and evil. Of tolerant and ‘intolerant’, and bias towards city against country in this occupation. Resistance to occupation is explained away as madrassa indoctrination for example, of an uneducated mind, of brown male misogyny against brown women who must be saved by white men. It smacks me of colonialism. I don’t deny many Afghans must be grateful to international forces, but tell me teenage and young twenty something ‘taliban’ fighters who are fighting and dying, and who were children on September 11 are not fighting for something tangible in the future. A piece of the pie as it were.

    I’m sorry if the airing of my views have offended you. I have not put sources because I’m not here to start a lengthy debate. I am not a romaticizer of the Taliban and believe they will be marginalized as an organization once again when they feel to have won when Western boots depart and reason to join become moot. Their record shows their popularity is only when they resist, whether to local warlords, or to Western ‘crusader invaders’. I do not consider the current conflagration fighting against the ANA to be Taliban but anti government Pashtun Islamist nationalists. To me Taliban are actual members and those committed to the ideological cause of a Islamic State in Afghanistan that applies hudood as understood by certain Deobandi thinkers and a so called ‘Islamic’ state system based entirely in 20th century Islamism. Not people who join the ‘resistance’ after seeing ANA is predatory or Western troops kill family etc. These were the people went to the moutnains while others shaved their beards after the invasion accepting the state had fell (before the insurgency started again in earnest).

    Anyways to sum up. Please if you could direct me to accurate ‘Taliban’/anti government FIGHTER statistics (not innocents killed, but ‘confirmed’ fighters). Secondly why was not a simple putative expedition to AQ and Taliban not an option? The Israelis seem do it all the time. Kill leadership, destroy arms, leave. Let them rebuild knowing another round will come if they offend again. Thirdly what is this obsession with AQ will return? AQ has no reason to be in Afghanistan when its main cause of overthrowing Arab regimes is underway right now, and do you really think the Taliban would risk another 10 years of occupation of their holy land for AQ members taking them for granted? Lastly do you see parallels with Afghanistan and the Mali expedition? Personally from reporting I think the Islamist fighters are alien and imposed (like AQ) but the Tuareg population who will undoubtedly be and are being oppressed by Malian troops, and Azawad rebels who felt betrayed by Islamist allies may end up rallying call for insurgency that will go on for years unnoticed because casualties will be African troops after the French leave after cosmetic changes in Timbuktu and Gao.

    • January 27, 2013 10:38 pm

      Moe, hi and thanks for throwing in your thoughts. In short, I think you are right to be sceptical of “body count” stats. I wrote a piece here about Taliban numbers: which might be of interest.

      A quick pass over your closing questions:
      1. Confirmed number of Taliban fighters killed: I don’t think you will ever find such a figure – very difficult to gather accurate information on the battlefield, too many differing sources, too many differing definitions of what a Taliban is (as you rightly observe), etc
      2. Your question was a little garbled – missing a word or two? I am sure “slap them down” was an option – and probably started off as the main mission. But doesn’t the fact that the Israeli’s are still having to do this suggest that it might not be a workable idea in the long-term? Kind of a tactic without a strategy?
      3. AQ – well, I think AQ probably got the point a while back that Afghanistan is perhaps not the best location (probably why those that are still left in the region are more likely to be found in Pakistan??). But a failed state is ultimately still a useful arena for AQ, so, if the West leaves and the place “fails” (or stays “failed”, depending on your definition) I wouldn’t rule out the AQ returning in some capacity.
      4. Mali – I am not so sighted on Mali, but The Economist has a useful article out this week trying to downplay the similarities but still questioning whether it will be as easy for the French Army to get out as they got in…

      Thanks for writing – let me now what you think.




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